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Tex-Mex Chorizo is a Celebrated Link in Texas Food History
In South Texas, chorizo is a staple of ubiquitous breakfast tacos, but when the Tex-Mex style was first conceived, in some places, it was sold under the name “fancy chili sausage” to appeal to Polish clientele.
Michael Kiolbassa, of Kiolbassa Smoked Meats, which produces about a million pounds of Tex-Mex-style pork chorizo annually, knows the product well. His family business started off as a mom-and-pop market near the stockyards in San Antonio’s meatpacking district. As descendants of Czech and Polish immigrants, the Kiolbassa family served all markets in the diverse San Antonio area, selling Polish sausage alongside Mexican-style chorizo.
But Tex-Mex chorizo is different from Portuguese linguiça, or Louisiana-style boudin — or even other varieties of chorizo — because of its use of New World chiles. The subtle layering of influences makes Texas cuisine unique. Indigenous New World ingredients used by native tribes for thousands of years — such as corn, chiles, beans, and tomatoes — were adopted by the Spanish missionaries and colonists that arrived in the 16th century. During the 17th and 18th centuries, Spanish colonists introduced Old World ingredients such as domestic pork, rice, onions, garlic, and sugarcane, which are now core elements of the cuisine of the Americas. By the 19th century, the arrival of freed African slaves and Eastern European immigrants in Texas brought even more new recipes and food traditions.
Chorizo is an excellent example of this exchange, combining Old World pork charcuterie with the flavoring of New World peppers in the form of paprika. Without the spicy red color and piquant flavor of powdered chiles, chorizo just wouldn’t be chorizo.
Kiolbassa said chorizo was sold as “fancy chili sausage” because that’s what the word was understood to mean in Polish. That history showcases why chorizo is a brilliant amalgamation of culture: The term “fancy chili sausage” was an English translation of a Polish interpretation of a Mexican-style sausage derived from Spanish colonial tradition.
Just north of the Mexican border in the rural ranching community of San Manuel, two brothers opened a small convenience store during World War II. Customers would stop by the roadside shop to purchase beer, steaks, and occasionally the homemade Tex-Mex-style chorizo kept in a refrigerated case. Luis Flores Sr., a young clerk at J.C. Penney’s at the time, noticed the brisk sales and bought an interest in the convenience store. Chorizo sales soon overwhelmed beer sales, and a chorizo business was born.
These days, owner Luis Flores Jr. estimates that one 12-ounce package of Chorizo de San Manuel sells every five seconds. Along with his mother Vicky, sister Patsy and brother Jaime, they send refrigerated trailer-loads of their small-batch chorizo out into Texas, the United States, and Mexico.
“But fresh Tex-Mex-style chorizo has a limited shelf life,” Flores said. North of Austin, it can be difficult to find. Slowly, however, food aficionados in markets outside of Texas are catching on, and chorizo is finding its way into refrigerated cases and onto tables in new territories.
Refrigeration is a key difference between Tex-Mex-style chorizo and Spanish chorizo. Both types are made with pork, vinegar, and spices such as paprika, oregano, and garlic. But Spanish chorizo is traditionally air-dried, fermented, and sliced, while Tex-Mex-style chorizo is sold fresh, uncooked and packaged in natural hog casings. The casing is removed before cooking, and the chorizo is pan-browned just like ground beef.
One chorizo manufacturer is determined to recreate the original process for making authentic Old World Spanish chorizo in her New World home of Boerne, Texas. Leslie Horne, owner of Aurelia’s Chorizo, has been producing Spanish-style chorizo since 1991 after a vacation in Spain.
The hot and humid atmosphere in Texas doesn’t offer the same fermentation-friendly conditions as the dry, Mediterranean Spain, and cold-smoking and air-curing are vital techniques involved in making authentic Spanish-style chorizo. Horne worked with Texas A&M University to devise a production method to meet modern U.S. Department of Agriculture meat safety standards so her product could be distributed nationally. After purchasing charcuterie equipment that allowed her to approximate the natural environment in Spain, Horne spent years perfecting a Mediterranean-equivalent drying environment in her Texas-based manufacturing process.
The fermented and dried Aurelia’s Chorizo sells well in the San Antonio market, despite its dissimilarity to fresh Tex-Mex-style chorizo. Once it is lightly browned in a pan, Spanish-style chorizo works beautifully in paella, rice dishes, soups, or stews. However, because Spanish-style dried chorizo is ready to eat right out of the package, it is usually served sliced, along with cheese, fruit, and a glass of wine.
In McAllen, Texas, the menu at Salomé on Main stands as a testament to chorizo being a local comfort food. For chef and owner Larry Delgado, it’s nostalgic. “When I was a kid, my favorite way that my mom prepared chorizo was mixed in with refried beans in tacos,” he said. “She didn’t always tell us in advance that chorizo was in there, so that first bite was a nice surprise, and a mundane bean taco became a cherished treat. Chorizo in our bean tacos determined how fast they would be eaten.”
The menus at Salomé and his other restaurants, Salt — New American Table and House.Wine. & Bistro, feature a long list of chorizo-based selections, from chorizo cornbread and chorizo vinaigrette to a blended chorizo burger and Delgado’s personal favorite, eggs Benedict with chorizo Hollandaise.
“The flavor profile is unique yet recognizable,” Delgado said. “Chorizo elevates a dish while bringing with it an element of nostalgia for some diners, as well as the chef.”