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Not So Clear Cut

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

To get the shoulder clod away in one piece, you gently sever the connective tissue that binds the meat to the shoulder blade while you pull down on the meat with the hook. Sliding the boning knife between the bone and the muscle without puncturing the meat requires a delicate touch, while yanking on the hook hard enough to pull the clod away demands brute force. It's an odd combination of skills, like playing the piano while moving it.

"Put your weight into it," the young A&M Meat Science major who served as my mentor said. "I'll make sure it doesn't fall on the floor." I hung on the hook, and finally, the clod pulled away. We flopped it onto the worktable like a 30-pound fish.

Now we began to "fabricate" our final cuts. There are a lot of different ways to butcher a carcass. You can remove the whole tenderloin — or you can include it in porterhouse and T-bone steaks. You can make rib eye steaks with the bone in or without. Once upon a time, grocery store butchers cut the shoulder blade into "seven-bone" pot roasts. Today, the same section of chuck yields flat iron steaks and shoulder tenders, cuts that are turning up in fancy restaurants as "bistro steaks." After we cut the outside skirt away from the ribs, we removed the first layer of the abdominal wall that's attached to it. That's the inside skirt, Savell told me.

Texas A&M Meat Science section leader Jeff Savell points to the famous diaphragm muscle or outside skirt steak.
Robb Walsh
Texas A&M Meat Science section leader Jeff Savell points to the famous diaphragm muscle or outside skirt steak.
The famous fajitas at Joe T. Garcia’s in Fort Worth are actually cut from ungraded tenderloins.
Robb Walsh
The famous fajitas at Joe T. Garcia’s in Fort Worth are actually cut from ungraded tenderloins.

After I learned how to cut up a shoulder clod to make flat iron steaks and tenders, I took a break and walked around. Griffin called me over and showed me a piece of boneless short rib so marbled the meat was as much white as red. It was the short rib meat Koreans call kalbi.

Savell pointed out the diaphragm muscle, the famous outside skirt steak. Since the meat runs in a circle around the inside of the thoracic cavity, it was easy to see where it got the "belt" name.

I got the tedious task of cleaning it. There is a tough membrane to peel away and under that, there's a layer of silver-skin connective tissue that has to be cut off with a knife.

There are two layers of abdominal muscle under the outside skirt. Some people called these tough cuts flap and tail meat, but since both used to go on the ground-beef pile, nobody worried much about nomenclature. Which is how these pieces got lumped together as "beef for fajitas."

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the word "fajitas" didn't mean anything.
_____________________

On Memorial Day Weekend, I grilled up fajitas for a family gathering. But before I let everyone dig in, I made them taste-test four different kinds of "fajitas." The marinated sirloin flap was pretty popular; it beat out the marinated and unmarinated inside skirt, and the marinated "beef for fajitas." The meat came from my brother Dave, who works for restaurant purveyor Ben E. Keith in San Antonio and called in fajita samples from meat suppliers. Our taste test represented the most popular meats sold for fajitas in Texas restaurants.

I was surprised to see outside skirt steak, but as my brother pointed out, it was imported. In a bizarre trade swap, we sell our outside skirt to Asia and then import outside skirt from Central America. When we opened the package, we were taken aback by the nasty liver odor. "It always smells like that," Dave said. Because of the smell, I decided to omit the outside skirt steak.

The best restaurant meats we tried were marinated. We can thank vacuum tumbler technology for turning previously tough cuts into excellent fajitas. But as always, there's a catch. As one A&M meat scientist explained, the process of marinating beef faces the same inherent problem as grinding beef. If you start off with one spot of bacterial contamination on the surface of the meat, you end up spreading it very effectively throughout the entire batch. It's only a matter of time before we face the first marinated-beef recall.

It helps that fajitas are usually cooked well-done. And adding antimicrobial agents to the marinade helps. But read the ingredient list, and you have to conclude that you are eating beef in a complex chemical stew.

In another backyard barbecue, I cooked up four more varieties of fajita meat, this time based on what's available in retail meat markets. I bought marinated inside skirt, ribbon-cut short ribs and unmarinated chuck steak at a Mexican meat market. The skirt was the most expensive, at $4.45 a pound. The other cuts were around $4. The store also sold "res para fajitas," a hodgepodge of marinated beef trimmings, for $2.98 a pound.

When I saw highly marbled boneless short rib meat for $3.98 a pound at Costco, I impulsively picked some up. It was the same marbled meat that Griffin showed me while we were cutting up our sides of beef in class. According to every recipe I could find, the short rib meat contains lots of connective tissue and needs to be boiled before you put it on a barbecue. But I eat this stuff in Korean barbecue joints all the time — thin-sliced, marinated with soy sauce and raw.

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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?

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.

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.

 
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