As most people who have spent any time in Texas, I’m pretty picky about my TexMex. I basically don’t eat it outside of the state, and certainly not north of the Mason-Dixon line. Before my move to the UAE in December, I tried to eat as much of it as I could: blue corn enchiladas at Chuy’s, chicken and tomatillo tacos at Taco Diner, chile rellenos at Mia’s, and muchas margaritas.

It took about three months of TexMex abstinence before I really started to miss it. Abu Dhabi is home to both a Chi-Chi’s — I didn’t know this chain still existed! — in the Le Meridien hotel and a place called Sombrero’s in the Sheraton Corniche. But it just didn’t seem right.

I got briefly excited when J brought home some flour tortillas from Waitrose, the British grocery in which I prefer to shop. (It most reminds me of my Whole Foods on Lemmon.) That joy quickly faded when I saw that it was “Ann’s” — not Ana’s — tortillas, made in Ajman.  (¿Ajman? ¿En serio?) Needless to say, no me les gusta.

Call it desperation, but I’ve recently broken down and tried some of the South of the Border offerings in Dubai. The first time last month was for a friend’s birthday, who was holding his celebration at the Media Rotana. Each Tuesday, the hotel has “Mexican night.”  What it is is a watered down Latin/Spanish menu tailored to British palates cooked by Phillipinos and Indians. (Wait staff even served “enchiladas” cafeteria style, using serving spoons to dish them out.) Let’s just say I focused on the unlimited margaritas.

Then last week, I got an email for a gathering of the Texas Exes, Arabia network. Sweet! Fellow Longhorns.

Hook 'em! (courtesy Kacy Kunesh)
Hook 'em! (courtesy Kacy Kunesh)

I scanned the invitation to see that it would be held at Cactus Cantina. Yep, more Emirati Tex Mex. Oy.

The Cantina has been at the Rydges Hotel in Satwa since 1992. It has a suitably kitchy decor, a little like Chuy’s without all the wooden fish and the Elvis special. The Indian staff were all very friendly and solicitous. They brought out servings of queso and tortilla chips, and both were surprisingly tasty. The queso was a good blend of cheese, tomatoes, guacamole and refried beans and the chips were crispy. Quesadillas and beef soft tacos were disappointing: bland cold tortillas with inadequately spiced ground beef, all topped with cold mystery cheese.

Then they brought out the standard by which all TexMex is judged: cheese enchiladas:

Dubai enchiladas (courtesy Kacy Kunesh)
Dubai enchiladas (courtesy Kacy Kunesh)

So how were they? Well, OK. The cheese is suitably melted but the sauce was rather bland, more “enchilada sauce” found in the “Mexican” aisle in mass market groceries than savory ranchero sauce. Maybe it’s because they can’t get the right kind of tortillas or cheese. Maybe it’s something that’s not in the water here. Cactus Cantina gets an A for effort, but I’ll have to wait for my next trip home to really get a fix.

4 thoughts on “¡Ay Díos mio! TexMex in the UAE

  1. When I was a foreign exchange student to Germany, I had a similar experience. As you may know, I’m from the Rio Grande Valley, so Tex-Mex is in my blood.

    After about six months without Tex-Mex (or even Mex-Mex), I finally broke down and visited the “Mexican” food restaurant in Kiel, Germany. It wasn’t awful, mostly bland — I think it was run by an American from New York (Yankee) for the German palate (boiled potatoes).

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