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Not So Clear Cut

What are you really eating when you order fajitas in a Tex-Mex restaurant?

Meanwhile, fajitas are in short supply. In 1988, the U.S.-Japan Beef and Citrus Agreement reclassified outside skirt, the cut that started the fajita craze, as tariff-free offal. The Japanese, who used to pay the equivalent of a 200 percent tariff on U.S. beef, now buy our outside skirt steak with no tariff at all. They are currently importing 90 percent of it.

Fajitas are the heart of modern Tex-Mex. They became popular when consumers started rejecting cheesy combination plates in the 1970s and 1980s in favor of more authentic Mexican cuisine. The name "fajitas," along with the recipe and the service style, came from the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas, not Mexico. But at least it was authentic Tejano cooking. The name fajita means "little belt" and refers to the shape of the outside skirt — anything else isn't really a fajita.

With outside skirt in short supply, Texas meat companies have compensated by offering some new fajita cuts to restaurants. In fact, the Texas A&M Meat Science section is working on fajita replacements. The meat doctors started rhapsodizing about wedges, flaps, hangers and tails. At the time, it sounded like they were discussing airplane parts.

The cattle are stunned, then hung and bled. The heart needs to keep beating to clear all the blood out of the carcass.
Robb Walsh
The cattle are stunned, then hung and bled. The heart needs to keep beating to clear all the blood out of the carcass.
At the Original Ninfa’s on Navigation, the fajitas are Certified Hereford outside skirt steak brushed with a finishing sauce.
Troy Fields
At the Original Ninfa’s on Navigation, the fajitas are Certified Hereford outside skirt steak brushed with a finishing sauce.

"What kind of meat do you use in your fajitas?" I asked the restaurant manager at Papa Perez when he stopped by our table.

"We use inside skirt steak," he said. "It's already marinated when we buy it. Then we add our own seasonings."

"It sure doesn't get this tender when I grill it," I said.

Then the meat doctors shared a secret — enzymes. To create tender beef fajitas like the ones on our sizzling comal, meat processors treat tough inner skirt with commercial enzymes or natural enzymes such as papain, which is extracted from papaya, and ficin, which comes from figs.

Papain is tricky. It doesn't start softening up the meat until it is activated by a temperature of at least 122 degrees F. And once it starts, it doesn't stop until the meat cools off. If you have ever had fajitas that tasted like mush, it's because they were cooked too long or the restaurant kept papain-treated meat in the warmer or on the steam table too long after it was cooked.

But you can get papain in the grocery store — it's the active ingredient in Adolph's Meat Tenderizer. All I had to do was come up with some marinade recipes with papain, and backyard barbecuers could make tender inside skirt steak at home, right?

Savell and Griffin said it's not that simple. When you marinate meat at home, you are lucky to get a 2 percent "take-up rate," as the measure of absorption is known in the biz. To increase the take-up rate, commercial meat packers do their marinating in a commercial vacuum tumbler. Mechanically tumbling the meat and the marinade in a rotating vacuum container with paddles breaks up and stretches out the protein fibers, increasing the meat's ability to absorb the liquid.

With as little as 20 minutes of vacuum tumbling, the "take-up" ratio can be increased to 10 percent. Along with the tenderizer and spices, salt and phosphate are also added to increase moisture retention. That makes the meat juicier and pads the meat packers' profits by increasing the weight.

But it gets even more complicated. There isn't enough inside skirt steak to satisfy the demand for fajitas. And so the meat scientists are experimenting with other cuts. These mechanically tumbled, enzyme-treated meat cuts are all sold interchangeably under the umbrella term "beef for fajitas." You can sample this faux fajita meat at any taqueria in town.

But marketing mystery meats under generic names like "beef for fajitas" runs counter to everything that's going on in the food world. It's exactly the kind of deceptive marketing Eric Schlosser takes on in the new movie Food, Inc.

The local-food movement has impressed consumers with the importance of provenance. And meat is the next big thing. That's why so many urbanites nationwide are signing up for butchery classes. Food lovers are ordering organ meat at restaurants, looking for short ribs and soup bones at the grocery store, and trying to cure their own bacon at home.

At Tom Mylan's hugely popular butchery classes at the Brooklyn Kitchen in New York, home butchers are learning how to cut up a side of beef, a whole hog or a lamb. At a meat market in San Francisco, chef Tia Harrison teaches a hands-on class in meat-cutting techniques for women.

Then there's the "Sacrificio" class in ­Seattle, in which a trendy chef named Gabriel ­Claycamp took participants out to a farm to slaughter a hog, process the meat and eat a pork feast. The slaughtering ceremony was modeled after an account by Anthony Bourdain of a village in Europe where the whole population turned out to process a pig on slaughtering day. The Seattle students brought their children to witness the killing and their kitchen knives to help cut up the meat. The organizers described it as a respectful celebration to help people see the animals they ate as something other than styrene packages in the grocery store.

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10 comments
Alan Medeiros
Alan Medeiros

Mr. Walsh, Even thought its been a couple of years, thank you for your very informative article. The local rags here in Boston could certainly use a reporter of your caliber.

JayneS
JayneS

Jesus can you tell this is Texas. Everyone is more concerned with the meat than the torture and suffering animal. I wish to God you people WOULD leave the US, I swear we'd be so much better off without Texas. Is there no end to how hateful (not to mention stupid and backward) you all are?

wquenichet
wquenichet

@JayneS Jayne, every one knows the best beef comes from Iowa, and Some would argue that Kobe beef, made in Japan, is the best also. California makes the best Tacos, Phildeplpia the cheese steak. For consistency, maybe we should just make every one leave.

Guest
Guest

Jesus could you sound like anymore of a stuck-up prick?

Watch epic mealtime on youtube, hater.

Patrick
Patrick

Robb Walshes article on Fajitas was incredible. So much information. Great research. I have lived in Houston for most of my 59 years and was thoroughly educated by this article and also explains some of the crappy fajitas I have encountered.

EC_Esq
EC_Esq

Dear Mr. Walsh,

Before I became an attorney, I grew up in the restaurant business. My mother has owned, operated or worked in Mexican restaurants in the town you visited for this story, Bryan/College Station, for the better part of 30 years. She opened her first place in 1978. Her latest venture is Gina's Restaurante Mexicano, not far from where you ate at Papa Perez. Mike Perez, the owner of Papa Perez, and I went to high school together. I learned how to make Chiles Rellenos & Bistek Rancheros at my mother's apron strings. She was a pioneer in Mexican food in the Brazos Valley and one of the first people to serve fajitas in the Bryan/College Station area.

With that in mind, I must expand on a couple of points you brought up. Fajitas were popularized as you said, because of the desire for a more "authentic" style of Mexican food. However, they did not originate in The Valley. Fajitas find their roots in the Carnes Asadas from Mexican cuisine. Which in turn go back to the frontier cattle-raising traditions of Northern Mexico. As beef was a staple of the American cowboy. So it was for his predecessor, the Mexican Vaquero.

The root word of Fajita is "Faja". Faja, in Spanish means "belt." Because of it's belt-like appearance and it's placement on the carcass, it is referred to as the "Little Belt". As you correctly pointed out, chickens do not have this. Neither do shrimp. Therefore, there are no such things as chicken or shrimp "fajitas"! These grilled items should correctly be referred to on menus as "Pollo Asado" or "Camarones Asados".

In support of this theory of nomenclature and theory of culinary history I also would like to point out that fajitas come from a trio of entrees typically served in Northern Mexican and South Texan "parrilladas". The other cuts you're omitting are "Agujitas" and "Tablitas". Agujitas means "Little Needles" which is the term given to thin cut beef ribs. When you eat the surrounding meat, it leaves a small, thin bone that looks like the eye of a needle. Tablitas means "little boards or planks". This is the name given to the flat, wide bone of the short rib that is left when you eat the surrounding meat. Fajitas, agujitas and tablitas usually made up a well rounded "parrillada" or mixed grill that could feed a small army.

Thanks for your very informative article and next time I'll write on how there is no such thing as a "chocolate martini".

Nate the Snake
Nate the Snake

So 'real' fajitas are the diaphragm? Ugh, gross.

Gary Wise
Gary Wise

I've had really good results with filet'd and butterflied hanger steak, a favorite soy/pineapple marinade, then sliced across the grain.

Howard
Howard

I had a Vietnamese friend tell me about the soy sauce/pineapple marinade more than 10 year ago. Been using that one ever since for fajitas!

Will Hilton
Will Hilton

I've been using the flat iron steak as a skirt steak substitute for fajitas over the past year or two. I found it seems to taste better reducing the pineapple juice, teriyaki sauce, brown sugar, and other preferred spices to almost a thick sauce consistency and putting it on the meat near the end of the grilling process instead of marinating the steak. I like the almost foolproof flexibilty of the flat iron steak. Plus, the wife and kids got tired of eating glorified shoe leather. Nice article, by the way.

 
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