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Not So Clear Cut

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

Jonathan Kauffman at Seattle Weekly (a sister paper of the Houston Press) attended the Sacrificio class and wrote about it. He saw it as a collision of "a host of food trends," including the rise of farmers' markets, the labeling of artisanal producers on menus, the growing concerns about conditions in slaughterhouses, and the new "Nose to Tail" attitude about eating the whole animal. Inspired by The Omnivore's Dilemma, in which Michael Pollan goes hunting and butchers a wild hog, young urban food lovers are seeking to understand and deepen their own relationships with meat.

The "get to know your meat" movement looks a little different from our vantage point here in Texas. Pollan's sense of irony about an intellectual like himself wielding a rifle sounds pretty silly if you hunt routinely. But meat eaters across the country want to know where their meat is coming from.
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The dark-brown fajitas at the Original Mama Ninfa's on Navigation Street came on a sizzling cast-iron comal with lots of caramelized onions. "It's Certified Hereford outside skirt steak. It's not marinated at all, it's just seasoned with salt and pepper and brushed lightly with soy sauce as it comes off the grill," according to the Ninfa's meat buyer, an outspoken chef named Mark Mavrantonis who's moving from Chicago to Houston.

Ninfa’s fajitas are cut against the grain and served on a sizzling comal with onions and peppers.
Troy Fields
Ninfa’s fajitas are cut against the grain and served on a sizzling comal with onions and peppers.
Beef 101 class leader Davey Griffin gives an anatomy lesson using a side of beef and packaged beef cuts.
Robb Walsh
Beef 101 class leader Davey Griffin gives an anatomy lesson using a side of beef and packaged beef cuts.

Ninfa's has to pay "a pretty penny" to get the hard-to-come-by USDA Choice outside skirt steak, Mavrantonis said. The Japanese have driven most restaurants out of the market. Ninfa's is the only restaurant in Texas where I have seen American outside skirt in the last few years, and they serve it there to preserve a tradition.

The beef was cooked well-done and cut into thin strips against the coarse grain. It was so tough, you had to pinch the tortilla to keep from pulling the meat strips out with your teeth when you took a bite. But the beef was also very flavorful. The Original Mama Ninfa's on Navigation is the restaurant that made fajitas famous. Thank goodness they still taste like they did in the old days.

A few years ago, under a tent set up on Auditorium Shores for the Texas Hill Country Wine & Food Festival in Austin, Juan Antonio "Sonny" Falcon, the man who calls himself "The Fajita King," addressed a Tex-Mex panel discussion. Falcon claims that during the 1960s, while working as a butcher at Guajardo's Cash Grocery in East Austin, he gave "fajitas" their name while he experimented with the diaphragm muscle. Falcon can document the first time he sold fajitas to the public. It was at a Diez y Seis celebration in Kyle in September of 1969.

Falcon's fame drew a big crowd to the tent, including a couple of hecklers. Some fellow Tejanos from the Lower Rio Grande Valley loudly contended that their grandmothers were making fajitas before Falcon was born.

"I like Sonny Falcon, I went to school with him. But he didn't invent fajitas," said Liborio "Libo" Hinojosa, whose family owns H&H Meat Products in Mercedes, one of the Valley's biggest meat suppliers. "The Lion Mart in Brownsville was selling fajitas at their meat counter way before 1969."

An archival search of Brownsville newspapers turns up a grocery store display ad featuring fajitas from 1971, which would suggest that fajitas weren't a new item in Brownsville. But the most remarkable thing about the ad is the fact that fajitas were selling for 99 cents a pound, while T-bone steaks were going for 79 cents a pound. Maybe outside skirt steak never was all that cheap.

The first restaurant to popularize fajitas in Austin was the Hyatt Hotel. The beef was served on a sizzling comal with onions and peppers, and the signature spread of flour tortillas, guacamole, salsas and condiments. But the hotel chef at the Hyatt balked at serving chewy skirt steak. Instead, he substituted sirloin. It wasn't long afterwards that chicken fajitas made their debut. The fact that chickens don't have skirt steaks didn't seem to bother anyone.
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As far as butchery classes go, the Beef 101 class at Texas A&M is the granddaddy of them all and way ahead of the trend. Davey Griffin set up the first class more than 20 years ago. It's a comprehensive overview of the beef industry from stockyard to cutting floor offered three times a year, and it's almost always booked solid with food industry pros.

Day two of Beef 101 started with an anatomy class by Griffin in which we learned the location of each cut of meat on a cattle skeleton nicknamed "Bossy." There were some surprises. "This is the infraspinatus muscle," said Griffin, holding up a plastic-wrapped cut of meat, "the second-tenderest cut of beef after the tenderloin — and it comes from the shoulder clod." Sometimes called the top blade, it is the cut that yields the newly popular flat iron steaks.

After the lecture, we suited up. Dressed in a hairnet and a hard hat, white frock and apron, a Kevlar glove and sleeve, and a metal chest protector, I strapped on my knife holder and entered the work area.

Led by Jeff Savell, my Beef 101 team took a meat saw to the 600-pound side of beef, cutting it into chuck, rib, loin and round — the four primal regions. The shoulder, or chuck, is the front end — that's where the brisket and shoulder clod come from. Most of it ends up as ground meat. The rib and loin yield the valuable "middle meats" prized in steak houses. The rump end is known as the round; it was once cut into giant round steaks, and now it yields such prizes as the eye of round roast.

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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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