There is a spectrum of Mexican food in the western United States. I strongly suspect it exists in the entirety of North America (particularly Mexico, for obvious reasons), but my empirical evidence is somewhat limited.
But wait, how complicated can it be? Tortillas, chips, beans, rice, meat, salsa, cheese, and you’re done. Pretty much all Mexican food is combining these in slightly different ways, and perhaps throwing in some cilantro or chiles or avocados for good measure.
That’s what I thought, too, until I tasted otherwise. I can’t fully explain it, but there is a definite difference between “New Mexican” food, California Mexican food, and Northwest Mexican food. Surprise: all of them are delicious! (We’ll leave chains such as Taco Bell and Chipotle out of the discussion for now, as they are constant across regions, and are arguably a separate genre of food entirely from traditional restaurant-style Mexican.)
Here’s what I’ve observed so far.
Northwest (mostly based on WA): Heavily influenced by tomatoes and tomato paste. Unique way of melting cheddar cheese with tomato-based sauces on/next to entrees. Characterized by smooth rice and refried beans, mild spice, and tomato salsa that is neither too chunky nor too blended. Green tomatillo salsa is an option. Chips are served warm, thin, and crispy. I grew up with this style of Mexican food, so it is my reference.
California (mostly based on southern): Often influenced by fish, and fish tacos in particular. Salsas tend to be “pico de gallo” style, or in other words, chunky with lots of cilantro. Delicious, creamy guacamole is prevalent. Rice and beans are likely to be healthier, and cooked with mild but distinct spices. Jalepenos are the preferred way of adding spice if desired. Chips vary, but are often thicker and salty, to pair with guacamole.
New Mexico (based on Las Cruces): Chile is king – the state question is “red or green?” Everything is smothered in red or green chile sauce, which is often full of meat or cream and melted cheese. Spicy isn’t an option; it’s a requirement. Salsas tend to be watery with some roasted chile chunks and lots of kick. Enchiladas are stacked instead of rolled, and offered with an egg on top. Chips are very deep fried and best eaten with chile con queso.
These three regional variants aren’t enough to define a true spectrum, however. So, when on a road trip from California to Washington, I ate at a Mexican restaurant in Oregon. Darned if it wasn’t an exact mashup of what I classified as “Northwest” and “California” Mexican food! Similarly, when I visited Arizona, I was amazed to find Mexican food that epitomized a crossover of “California” Mexican food and “New Mexican” food.
Clearly this calls for more experimental followup. I’ll get back to you on that.