05/18/2012 10:06 am ET Updated Aug 31, 2012

What To Drink With Tex Mex

By Ray Isle, Executive Wine Editor, Food & Wine

What I long for as an expat Texan is great Tex-Mex food. Beer and margaritas are ideal partners, of course, but it would be a shame to leave Lone Star (or other) wine lovers out in the cold, with nothing to drink along with their fajitas. Here's a quick guide on what to drink with Tex Mex.

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Classic Crispy Tacos or Chalupas. There's beef (or chicken, or pork) here, but there's also lettuce, mild cheese, that crunchy fried shell, maybe pico de gallo; a whole range of flavors that meld into something not quite as robust as straight meat, but mighty tasty. Choose a medium-bodied red, like Pinot Noir. Finding inexpensive Pinot that actually tastes like Pinot Noir can be a daunting task, but the strawberry-scented 2009 Redtree ($10) is pretty darn good for the price.

Quesadillas. This category is the realm of pure cheese: chile con queso, queso fundido or flameado, quesadillas, your basic cheese-slathered baseball nachos, and so on. Go for white, but something with both substantial body as well as firm acidity. An unoaked California Chardonnay would be a fine choice. Morgan's citrusy Metallico bottling helped start this trend, and the 2010 is up to form ($20).

Enchiladas. Dishes in this realm fall into the "it's the sauce not the protein" realm -- whether you've got beef or chicken in that enchilada, you're still looking at a dish covered with salsa -- ranchera/red or verde -- and an ocean of melted cheese. Chicken enchiladas with a verde sauce, go with a crisp white, like Albarino from Spain; beef enchiladas with red sauce, a juicy red Zinfandel. The 2010 Burgans Albarino ($13) is a good choice; for zin, look for the dark, spicy Brazin Old Vine Zinfandel ($15).

Fajitas/Tacos al Carbon. Protein and more protein, plus some smoke. Generally speaking, for meat dishes with few trimmings, a red with reasonably substantial tannins is a fine idea. Malbec from Argentina would serve, and also offers some of the best quality-for-price possibilities in wine. Three good choices are the substantial 2011 Bodini ($12), the cherry-inflected 2010 Crios from winemaker Susanna Balbo, and the rich, intensely flavorful 2010 Layer Cake ($15).

Anything Crazily Hot. Seriously, if you're into salsas that will make your taste buds cower in fear, or like to snack on raw habanero chiles, drink a beer. Your life will be better. And if you're in Texas, something from St. Arnold's Brewery in Houston, like its crisply hoppy Elissa IPA, would be a fine choice (not that a bottle of that Texas classic, Shiner Bock, would hurt you either).

I would be remiss if I didn't add two important references to this rundown. Those who want to cook should check out Robb Walsh's excellent The Tex-Mex Cookbook: A History in Recipes and Photos; those who want to drink (wine, that is) ought to take a gander at Russell Kane's authoritative and engagingly readable The Wineslinger Chronicles: Texas on the Vine.

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