Restaurant Reviews

Mama's Got a Brand-new Bag

Part three of a six-part series

Maria Lagunas is slapping dough balls into tortillas. I stand watching her near the front door of the original Ninfa's on Navigation. After a short wait, we are seated in the old dining room near a huge enlargement of Mama Ninfa's wedding picture. "She was skinny then," says our waitress, with a laugh. "I think she was 18 or 19 in that picture." A photo of the latter-day Mama Ninfa appears on the menu. She appears well fed. I order her specialty fajitas.

The green and red hot sauces served with the chips at Ninfa's have radically different heat levels. The red is hot, while the green is mild and creamy. "Ninfa's was the first place I ever saw both red and green hot sauces," Houston food lover Jay Francis remembers. "Pretty soon after that, Molina's and other places were offering a variety of table sauces, too. But it was Ninfa's that really got the salsa thing started." The original Ninfa's is also largely responsible for the fajita craze that swept the country late in the last century.

A press release distributed to newspapers a few months ago states, "It is a fact that a true legend of the food business, Mama Ninfa Laurenzo of Houston, Texas, originated the first fajita in the United States in 1973."

The year 1973 was a remarkable one in the Mexican restaurant business; it could be called the year that the paradigm shifted. It was the year the term "Tex-Mex," as a food description, first appeared in print, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The Cuisines of Mexico, by Diana Kennedy, was published in 1972; by 1973 it was a national sensation. For the first time ever, an author clearly spelled out the difference between real Mexican food and Americanized Mexican cuisine to stateside diners. Kennedy berated the "mixed plates" that pass for Mexican food in this country and challenged readers to raise their standards. It was no coincidence that Kennedy's cookbook, Mama Ninfa's restaurant and the term "Tex-Mex" all entered the American food scene at the same time.

The term "Tex-Mex" was first coined as the nickname of the Texas Mexican Railway, which was chartered in 1875. The Tex-Mex railroad was built by English engineers and Mexican laborers. They communicated with each other in a half-English, half-Spanish patois that came to be called Tex-Mex Spanish.

The modern definition of Tex-Mex, according to the OED, is "designating the Texan version of something Mexican." The dictionary cites usage of Tex-Mex Spanish as early as 1941. The OED also notes that the first use of the term in relation to food occurred in 1973 in this quote from the Mexico City News, an English-language newspaper for American tourists and expatriates: "It is a mistake to come to Mexico and not try the local cuisine; it is not the Tex-Mex cooking one is used to in the United States."

Americanized Mexican food has long been reviled in Mexico City. In the Diccionario de Mejicanismos, first published in the Mexican capital in 1958, the Texas dish chili con carne is defined as (roughly translated) "a detestable food passing itself off as Mexican in the United States." The English-born Diana Kennedy moved to Mexico City to be with her husband, the late Paul Kennedy, a New York Times correspondent. Her culinary point of view reflected the Mexican capital's anti-American bias.

Disdain from rich Mexicans never bothered Texans much. After all, the members of the Europeanized elite in Mexico City also turned up their noses at native Indian foods, such as chili peppers, corn and squash, and the rustic vaquero cooking of the northern ranch lands. These sophisticates of Spanish descent believed that only such elaborate dishes as chiles en nogada (chilies in walnut sauce), huachinango a la veracruzana (red snapper in a tomato, olive and caper sauce) and mole poblano (chili, chocolate, sesame and raisin sauce) represented the true mestizo spirit of Mexican cuisine.

The Cuisines of Mexico was a breakthrough cookbook, one that could have been written only by a non-Mexican. It unified Mexican cooking by transcending the nation's class divisions and treating the food of the poor with the same respect as the food of the upper classes.

Thanks in large part to the influence of Kennedy's friends at The New York Times, particularly the late food editor Craig Claiborne, The Cuisines of Mexico became the definitive book on Mexican cooking. Its sermons on the inferiority of this country's Mexican food were accepted as gospel by food-savvy Americans who soon started using the derogatory term Tex-Mex to describe it.

To some extent, the Tex-Mex coinage was unfairly arbitrary. Italian-American cooking of that era wasn't authentic, and Chinese-American cooking wasn't either. But nobody coined any new names for these cuisines. The effect that her prejudices were having on Mexican-Americans never occurred to Diana Kennedy. She had never lived in the United States, and didn't know anything about the League of United Latin American Citizens, La Raza Unida or the problems of Mexican-Americans. Fair or not, Kennedy's criticisms triggered a culinary paradigm shift.

The theory of paradigm shifts was first set forth in Thomas S. Kuhn's book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn says that revolutionary changes in our point of view are not gradual, but occur in sudden, dramatic shifts. When a new theory (like the idea that the earth is a globe) comes along that better explains the existing data, the old paradigm (the earth is flat) is suddenly abandoned. In 1973 Diana Kennedy turned old-fashioned Tex-Mex into the flat-earth theory.

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.

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.

The fajita craze caught on for a number of reasons: First, old-fashioned Tex-Mex had given Americans a craving for Mexican flavors, but the low-fat movement made many diners wary of lard-laden mixed plates. Grilled meats and flour tortillas were a better fit with the new diet. Second, the emphasis on fresh salsas coincided with the skyrocketing popularity of chili pepper-based ethnic cuisines. And third, fajitas seemed more authentically Mexican than Señorita Platters and the other Tex-Mex dishes that were making their way toward the bus tray of history.

The fact is, of course, fajitas with spicy salsas and fresh flour tortillas didn't originate from Diana Kennedy's cookbook or interior Mexico. They came from those Hispanic West Texas ranch hands and restaurants of the Rio Grande Valley. It was more authentic, all right, but it wasn't authentic Mexican; it was authentic Tejano.

"I grew up in the lower Rio Grande Valley," says Mama Ninfa. "I was just serving the same kind of good, honest food at my restaurant that we used to eat at home. Fajitas were an old family recipe." Cooking steaks or fajita meat on a backyard grill and serving the meat chopped up with condiments and flour tortillas was a typical backyard barbecue for Tejanos in the lower valley.

Grilled meats are a tradition in northern Mexico as well. But the difference between Tejano cooking in the valley and northern Mexican cooking is the ingredients. Modern American beef, for example, is much more tender than the tougher range-fed beef across the border, so it lends itself better to grilling. In Mexico, cowboys had to pound and marinate the diaphragm muscle to make it tender enough to eat. Tejano butchers, on the other hand, were getting thick, tender skirt steaks from Midwestern meat packers that required no preparation at all. So in reality, it was the widespread distribution of American corn-fed beef that "invented" the fajita craze.

Under the smiling face of a young Mama Ninfa, I drain my frozen margarita and roll up the remainder of my onions, peppers and fajita meat inside the last homemade tortilla. The waitress tells me that nowadays the fajitas at Ninfa's are seasoned with garlic powder and pepper and doused with soy sauce to give them a deep color and salty flavor before they are grilled and chopped. I'm not surprised to learn that an Asian ingredient is being incorporated into the cooking at a popular Houston fajitaria. The innovations that occur when cultures mix is what makes America (and Tex-Mex) great.

Once Diana Kennedy made the term Tex-Mex common, variations began to appear. Californians started calling their steak burritos "Cal-Mex," and New Mexicans called their stacked enchiladas "New Mex-Mex." Restaurants that offer authentic Mexican dishes in Houston now advertise themselves as "Mex-Mex," and those that offer a large selection boast a "Mix-Mex" menu. At least one restaurant chain has attempted to trademark "Fresh-Mex."

Meanwhile, Tex-Mex has begun to be used retroactively. Once the term was widely understood, it became logical to use it to describe Texas-Mexican foods throughout history. The term is now used by culinary folklorists to describe a cooking style whose history goes all the way back to the Spanish introduction of European livestock and cultivated crops in 1581.

Today, 28 years after The Cuisines of Mexico was published, many of its authentic interior Mexican dishes look like museum pieces from the baroque era. And Tex-Mex is no longer an insult. We can thank Diana Kennedy for inadvertently granting Tex-Mex its rightful place in food history. By convincing us that Tex-Mex wasn't really Mexican food, she forced us to realize that it was something far more interesting: America's oldest regional cuisine.

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Robb Walsh
Contact: Robb Walsh