5 Tips for Preparing Tex-Mex Food Safely

Server delivers Tex-Mex tacos to customers

Tex-Mex food is everywhere — although if you’re like me, you may not recognize it by name. When I was growing up, I simply thought of Tex-Mex as “Americanized” Mexican food.

What is “Tex Mex”?

The name “Tex Mex,” or Tex-Mex, is a combination of two words: Texan and Mexican. As the name suggests, Tex-Mex is a hybrid of traditional Texan and Mexican food.

Basically, if your meal contains ground beef, yellow cheese, nacho cheese, generous amounts of cumin, or a side of refried beans and rice, you’re probably eating Tex-Mex. Flour tortillas and hard corn shells are also typical ingredients.

Tex-Mex is served in restaurants like Chipotle, Costa Vida, and Taco Bell. In fact, many restaurants that market themselves as Mexican have Tex-Mex dishes on the menu.

You might recognize the following items:

  • Nachos
  • Combo plate (an entree served with a side of beans and rice)
  • Anything with chili con carne (sauce made from ground beef, chopped tomatoes, and beans)

A brief history of Tex-Mex

Tex-Mex has been a part of United States history since Texas became a state in 1845, but its roots go back much further than that. The two cuisine styles inevitably began to combine in the 1500s, when Spanish settlers colonized Texas and Mexico.

The unique blend of flavors began gaining popularity in the late 1880s, when entrepreneurs known as the Chili Queens and Tamale Kings started selling Tex-Mex food on the streets of San Antonio. Tex-Mex food was even sold at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.

The term “Tex Mex” became popular in 1972, at the same time the food was distinguished as its own regional cuisine.

Tex-Mex and food safety

As with any other type of food, Tex-Mex can make people sick if it’s been handled improperly. 

Fortunately, if you follow five basic tips when cooking and serving meals, it will go a long way toward preventing foodborne illness at your own workplace.

Tip #1: Don’t work with food while sick

In November 2015, investigators traced a Norovirus outbreak that affected more than 140 people back to a popular Tex-Mex restaurant. The source of the outbreak? A sick employee.

And that employee wasn’t alone — up to 51 percent of food handlers have admitted to working while they were sick.

If you have any of the following symptoms, you must tell your manager about them before you work your shift:

  • Vomiting (within the past 24 hours)
  • Diarrhea (within the past 24 hours)
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the eyes or skin)
  • Sore throat with a fever

If you’re a manager, use our food employee illness stand-up training to teach your staff when they should stay home sick.

Tip #2: Use gloves properly

Like with any type of food, you should avoid touching Tex-Mex with your bare hands. Gloves help keep bacteria on your hands from getting into the food you prepare — but only when you use them properly.

For instance, before you even think about putting on gloves, you should wash your hands. Washing your hands will help get germs off your hands and reduce the chance that you’ll contaminate your gloves.

You should also change your gloves regularly. Change them anytime you:

  • switch tasks
  • take a break
  • think your gloves may have become contaminated
  • tear or damage your gloves
  • use the same gloves for four hours

Each time you change your gloves, wash your hands again.

Check out our stand-up training about wearing gloves for more information.

Tip #3: Wash your hands thoroughly and often

Keeping your hands clean is one of the keys to keeping Tex-Mex safe. Even if you wear gloves while you’re working, you should practice good hand hygiene.

You should wash your hands in at least all the following situations:

  • Before you put on gloves
  • After working with raw meat
  • After you cough or sneeze
  • After you touch your skin or hair
  • After you take a break and before you continue working
  • After you touch dirty equipment or utensils
  • Twice after using the bathroom (once in the bathroom and again in your work area)

When you wash your hands, use soap and water. Scrub your hands for at least 15 seconds. That’s about as long as it would take to sing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” in your head.

Tip #4: Keep food out of the temperature danger zone

Tex-Mex is filled with perishable ingredients like meat, cooked rice and beans, cheese, salsa, guacamole, and pico de gallo. You may even make handmade tortillas at your establishment.

Pathogens multiply fastest on perishable foods in the temperature danger zone (41°-135°F). One way you can keep germs from growing to unsafe levels is to take steps to keep food out of the danger zone as much as possible.

If you’re cooking, use a food thermometer to make sure each item is cooked to the FDA’s recommended temperatures. Cooking food to the proper temperature will help kill any bacteria that may be on it.

If you’re reheating a previously made dish, you can heat it to any temperature if it will be served immediately. If the dish will be hot-held, or kept warm until it’s eaten, heat it to 165°F. Only use an oven, microwave, or stove to reheat food — other types of heating elements may not warm the food quickly enough to hinder bacterial growth.

If you’re cooling leftover food so it can be stored in the fridge or freezer, use the two-step cooling method. Basically, you should make sure the food cools to 70°F within two hours. Then get it completely out of the temperature danger zone (i.e. to 41°F) over the next four hours.

Tip #5: Get your Texas food handlers card

Whether you just got a job at a Tex-Mex restaurant or you’ve been working in foodservice for years, check out our Texas food handler training course to learn more about how you can keep food safe.

Our 75-minute course is all online and available in eight different languages. After you pass the test, we’ll give you your official food handler license. It’s good for two years.

— Jessica Pettit

Updated: 03/27/2020 — 5:20 pm
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