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Mama's Got a Brand-new Bag

Mama Ninfa brings home fajitas

In the introduction of his recent cookbook, Matt Martinez's Culinary Frontier, third-generation Mexican restaurant owner Matt Martinez Jr. of Matt's Rancho Martinez in Dallas remembers his first encounter with Kennedy at a cooking class. "She said she only did authentic Mexican food, not Tex-Mex," Martinez fumes. "I was so insulted." Mexican restaurant owners across the state, including Martinez's sister, who ran Matt's El Rancho in Austin, refused to use the term Tex-Mex. But Martinez took the opposite tack: He decided to call everything he cooked Tex-Mex and do what he could to make the style famous.

While Diana Kennedy was teaching classes across the country, demonstrating the flavors of real Mexican cooking, radical changes were taking place in the Mexican-American community. Fiery leaders such as Cesar Chavez challenged the assimilationist politics of Felix Tijerina (see "Combination Plates," August 31) and his era. Minority groups of all kinds began to demand a multicultural model of American society that allowed them to retain their ethnic identities.

When Kennedy pointed out that Tex-Mex was a bastardized version of Mexican food, America fell into step behind her. They did so because, first of all, she was right. And second, because authentic or not, the Texas-Mexican food of Tijerina's generation didn't reflect the spirit of the times. Tex-Mex was what we called the Uncle Tomás version of Mexican food. It was Mexican food for white people. Baby boomers were ready to graduate to something more exciting -- they wanted to eat the kind of food Mexicans ate.

Ninfa Laurenzo in her wedding finery
Troy Fields
Ninfa Laurenzo in her wedding finery
The original Ninfa's made fajitas popular.
Troy Fields
The original Ninfa's made fajitas popular.

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Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. (713)228-1175
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The sizzling metal platter bearing my fajitas comes to the table with the traditional warning: "Very hot plate!" The strips of beef are black on the outside and extremely tender with a charred flavor and a pleasant hint of garlic and pepper. The fajitas are served on a nest of caramelized onions with green pepper slices on top. A fried tortilla shell in the shape of a cup holds lettuce and tomatoes, guacamole and sour cream. I roll up large portions of salty beef, soft sweet onions and smooth guacamole in a warm flour tortilla and bite in. The familiar flavor of the fajita taco is like an old friend.

Did Mama Ninfa invent fajitas? Well, no, not exactly.

In 1984 a Texas A&M animal science professor named Homero Recio was so fascinated by the fajita craze and its effect on the beef industry -- fajita meat went from 49 cents a pound in 1976 to $2.79 a pound in 1985 -- that he obtained a fellowship to trace the origins of the fajita. While the word "fajita" didn't appear in print until 1975, Recio discovered that the word was in use among butchers of the lower Rio Grande Valley in the 1940s. Fajita is the diminutive form of faja, which means "belt" or "girdle" in Spanish. Fajita refers to the diaphragm muscle of a steer, which looks something like a short belt.

According to Recio, the originators of what we call fajita tacos were the Hispanic ranch hands of West Texas who were given the head, intestines and other unwanted beef cuts such as the diaphragm as part of their pay. They pounded the diaphragm, marinated it with lime juice, grilled it, then cut it up and ate the meat with salsa and condiments on flour tortillas, which became common in Texas in the 1930s. (Although the name fajita and the serving style are unique to Texas, a similar grilled diaphragm "steak" is also common in Nuevo Leon, where it is called arrachera al carbon.)

The first commercial fajitas may have been sold by Sonny Falcon, the man whom the Laredo Morning Times called the Fajita King. Falcon sold grilled fajita tacos for the first time at an outdoor festival in Kyle, Texas, in 1969. He used only the thick, tender inner skirt flap meat. It was trimmed, butterflied and grilled, just as in the northern Mexican recipe for arracheras. But instead of serving the meat as a steak, as is the custom in northern Mexico, Falcon chopped it against the grain into bite-size pieces and served it on flour tortillas as "fajita tacos."

A short time later, the Round-Up Restaurant, which opened in Pharr, Texas, in 1969, became the first restaurant to serve fajita meat. According to an article by John Morthland in Texas Monthly in March 1993, the concept of serving the meat on a sizzling platter with guacamole, salsa and flour tortillas was originated by the Round-Up's owner, Otilia Garza, whose restaurant is no longer in business.

But the restaurant that is most closely associated with fajitas is Ninfa's. In 1973 Ninfa's began serving a fajita-meat dish called tacos al carbon, which it later trademarked as "tacos a la Ninfa." Sometime later, Ninfa's began to use the name "fajitas." The restaurant captured the spirit of the times, and Houstonians flocked to the tiny dining room. Ninfa's fajitas became a sensation that was imitated across the country.

With no knowledge of the history or definition of the term, Mexican restaurants and their customers soon blurred the definition of "fajita." It now included any grilled meat served with flour tortillas and condiments. Soon chicken "fajitas" and shrimp "fajitas" (which might be translated as "chicken belts" and "shrimp skirts") began appearing on Mexican restaurant menus.

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