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Not So Clear Cut

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

I tried to butterfly the meat, but finally I gave up, put it on my handy Krups home meat slicer and cut it into slices about a fifth of an inch thick. I pounded the meat very thin and seasoned it with my usual chile and garlic rub, with some Adolph's Meat Tenderizer added.

The chuck steak won the taste test. The meat market-marinated inside skirt came in second. The ribbon-cut short ribs were good, but they didn't look like fajitas. The boneless short rib meat was so tender it fell apart. In subsequent experiments I cut boneless short rib a little thicker and forgot the Adolph's. Marinated in a pineapple juice and soy sauce mixture, it was my favorite new fajita stand-in. I am going to start experimenting with flat iron steaks and tri-tip steaks next.

Of course, those aren't traditional fajitas (see "The New Bistro Steaks and Fajitas").
_____________________

Beef 101 students learn to evaluate cattle on the hoof to estimate yield and quality grade before slaughter.
Robb Walsh
Beef 101 students learn to evaluate cattle on the hoof to estimate yield and quality grade before slaughter.
Evisceration is a manual procedure that requires careful handling to prevent any contamination from spillage.
Robb Walsh
Evisceration is a manual procedure that requires careful handling to prevent any contamination from spillage.

Joe T. Garcia's in Fort Worth seats up to 1,500 people when all the patios are open. Fajitas are by far the most popular order — the tender beef served there takes no effort at all to chew, but it doesn't have a lot of flavorful char or coarse-grained character, either.

"We use tenderloin for our fajitas," Joe T.'s owner, Jody LanCarte, said. I was shocked.

Christine Lopez Martinez, the manager of Matt's Rancho Martinez in Dallas, another restaurant with great fajitas, said Matt's uses the same cut. "We use beef tenderloins," she said. "We brush the meat with our Black Magic sauce when it comes off the grill — and that's it."

The tenderloin they were talking about wasn't the Prime or Choice stuff you eat in fancy steak houses. Matt's Rancho Martinez uses USDA Select, while Joe T.'s uses ungraded tenderloin.

Below USDA Prime, Choice and Select, there are the USDA Standard, Commercial, Utility and Canner grades. You never see these in restaurants or grocery stores, but that doesn't mean you aren't eating them. USDA inspection is mandatory for all meat plants. Most people assume this means all meat is graded — it's not. USDA grading is a service that meat processors can elect to pay extra for. And it costs a lot of money.

A Prime, Choice or Select grade brings a bonus price; lesser grades don't add anything to the bottom line. Meat packers don't waste money getting older or less muscled steers graded. But the meat still gets sold. It's called ungraded beef. Ungraded tenderloin, known as cow tenders in the meat trade, is relatively cheap and very tender. Compare the price of ungraded tenderloin or sirloin to USDA Choice inside skirt steak, and you begin to understand that meat quality is not as simple as the labels make it seem.

In our final day of Beef 101, we sat in a classroom eating little chunks of beef in plastic cups and rating them on a 1-to-10 scale for a variety of sensory evaluation factors including juiciness, tenderness and overall impression. We checked off flavor notes on a list that included fatty, bloody, livery, grassy, soda, salt, chemical, bitter, soapy, metallic and a taste researchers describe as "cardboard."

The first thing that became apparent as we raised our hands to vote for sample A or sample B was that we all had different tastes in beef. The class compared Select to Choice and Prime, wet-aged to dry-aged, grass-fed to grain-fed, and Angus to Charolais and Brahma genetics. We assessed the palatability of beef — which was stripped of labels, prejudices and romantic steak house ambience — like meat scientists.

The results were surprising. The vast majority of the class preferred wet-aged beef, despite the exalted reputation of expensive dry aging. And a USDA Prime rib eye sample was scored lower by most of the class on overall impression than one particular piece of USDA Choice.

The recession is surely part of the reason that business is off at luxury steak houses and cheaper beef cuts are in demand. But a lot of consumers and restaurant chefs have been getting tired of steak anyway. "I love secondary cuts — choice tenderloin is boring," Mark Mavrantonis said. "There's a lot more character in brisket, short ribs, skirts and some of these other new cuts."

Tenderloin or fajitas? Prime, Choice or Select? I used to put a lot of faith in those names, whether I encountered them in restaurants or on the styrene packages of meat in the grocery store. Now I know better. What you are looking for is flavor.

robb@robbwalsh.com

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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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