The time: the thirties. The place: south Texas. It’s roundup time from the King Ranch to the Rio Grande, and when lunch rolls around, the chuck wagon cook butchers a cow or two to feed the hands. The lowly cowboys and Mexican vaqueros get the tough cuts, including the fajita, or skirt steak. Throwing the thin flavorful meat directly over hot coals, the cook sears it quickly, wraps it in tortillas to catch the dripping juices, and serves it taco style. Fajitas are born.
Fast-forward to 1993: the Hyatt Regency hotel, Austin. Smoke billows through the air as servers rush from the kitchen bearing sirloin “fajitas” sizzling in their juices on cast-iron comals. Alongside the meat are mounds of guacamole, grated cheese, chopped tomatoes, and sour cream. Seemingly every table in the hotel’s La Vista dining room has ordered fajitas. Indeed, in this one restaurant alone, more than ten thousand pounds of fajitas are sold each month. Since 1991 other Hyatt Regency restaurants across the country have been using the same recipe for success.
To say that fajitas are in is to ludicrously understate the obvious. From their origin as an obscure, unpronounceable throwaway cut of beef, fajitas have become—after hamburgers and chili—Texas’ third contribution to the pantheon of all-American foods. Fajitas are everywhere. They have challenged steaks as the local variant on the noble tradition of backyard grilling, and they are ubiquitous at Mexican restaurants across the country, especially in the Southwest: Fajita Junction has 23 outlets in Texas and 1 in Florida. Jack-in-the-Box made “fajita” a household word with its Fajita Pita advertising campaign. A Fourth of July fajita cookoff was held in the Rio Grande Valley from 1976 through the late eighties. From northern Mexico, where they are called arracheras, fajitas have recently spread to Mexico City.
Perhaps the surest sign of the rise of the fajita is the price of skirt steak, which has more than quintupled since the trend started. Skirt steak retailed for 49 cents a pound in Texas in 1976; today it sells for about $2.49 in the Valley and approaches $4 in other areas of the state. Part of the reason for this is inflation; also, more than half of America’s skirt steak is exported to Japan, causing a decrease in supply that has probably helped drive the price up. But the main reason is the fajita fad. In a relatively short time, skirt steak has been upscaled from poverty food to yuppie trend. In the process, certain pressing questions have arisen: What is a fajita, anyway? How did fajitas get from South Texas to the Hyatt Regency? And can you get the real thing anywhere anymore?
Back in the old days, “fajita” had a very specific meaning. “ Faja” is Spanish for “belt” or “strip,” and “fajita” is the diminutive form of that word. Skirt steak, or just skirt, as American butchers call it, resembles a cummerbund and refers to the diaphragm muscle from the forequarter of the cow (outside skirt) and the secondary flank muscle from the hindquarter (inside skirt). Before fajitas became popular, you could count on getting skirt steak when you ordered fajitas. But once the fajita fad took off, things changed. Since one cow yields only about eight pounds of fajita, demand quickly overtook supply, and restaurateurs bestowed the term on a host of foods that have nothing to do with the original meaning of the word: steak fajitas, chicken fajitas, even—heaven help us—seafood fajitas. Little by little, the word “fajita” came to refer not to the meat, but to the technique of cutting any meat into strips, marinating, and grilling it.
There’s nothing particularly wrong with eating “chicken fajitas,” “pork fajitas,” or “shrimp fajitas” as long as you realize that these terms are as much a misnomer as “zucchini potato chips” or “cilantro pesto.” And as long as you realize that the supermarket label “meat for fajitas” almost always refers to some cheap generic cut of meat and not skirt steak.
Real fajitas start out tough. Granted, most restaurants don’t tenderize their skirt steak, but home cooks may want to subject it to some kind of treatment. To do the job, two options are available: The meat may be pierced repeatedly with a knife (never, ever pounded to a pulp with a mallet), or it can be marinated. The most common marinades involve some acidic liquid (a combination of pineapple or other citrus juice, vinegar, wine, or soy sauce) plus cilantro, chili powder, garlic, and salt. In the Valley bottled Italian dressing and Adolph’s meat tenderizer are standard.
If there is a single name that is most associated with fajitas, it would have to be Otilia Garza, the doyenne of the late lamented Round-Up Restaurant in Pharr, in the Rio Grande Valley. Garza didn’t invent fajitas, but she is generally recognized as the first in the Valley to popularize them. Garza took over the Round-Up in 1969, when it was still a drive-in eating place, and began giving fajitas away to favored customers. Before this time, slaughterhouses customarily ground up the skirt for hamburger or packaged it as stewing beef. But Garza saw possibilities in the meat that no one else recognized. She had learned to cook fajitas as a girl from her grandmother, who served them at her own restaurant in Reynosa across the border. Her grandmother had learned the dish while growing up in Nuevo Leon, so it was only natural that when Garza opened a restaurant herself, she would serve skirt steak.
Her giveaway fajitas were such a hit that within a year she put them on the menu; this was, not coincidentally, around the time that more-tender corn-fed beef began regularly reaching the Valley from the Midwest. Her technique had much to do with the popularity of the dish. First, she butterflied outside skirts and tossed them on the griddle, then she sprinkled on a secret mixture of spices (no marinade) and quick-cooked the ultrathin meat in six or seven