Low Steaks

How a cut of meat from the wrong side of the steer rose to culinary stardom, plus a guide to Texas’ most authentic fajitas.

March 1993By Comments

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 minutes. She served it dripping with its own juices, as a steak, not in strips. To this day, when you order fajitas in the Valley, you will usually get a whole steak rather than thin strips.

Garza probably also deserves the credit for the two innovations that have become synonymous with fajitas: the sizzling platter and the mountain of condiments. She says she got the idea for sizzling platters after being served queso flameado (melted Mexican cheese) on a cast-iron plate in Acapulco, but her signal contribution to fajita ritual was presentation. Her original botana (snack) plate came on a fourteen-inch platter covered in bean-and-American-cheese nachos. The fajita steak was placed on top of the nachos and surrounded by five scoops of guacamole and mounds of diced tomatoes, onions, and jalapeños; flour tortillas were included so diners could make tacos. Garza introduced the botana at Tila’s, her McAllen restaurant, in 1977 and such was its success that it continues to dominate Valley menus today.

But as important as Otilia Garza is in the history of the fajita, and as much as she did to create the dish in its present form, it took a boost from another quarter to help the fad take off. While Garza was doing her bit to spread the gospel of fajitas from the Valley north, Austin’s Sonny Falcon was spreading it from Central Texas outward. The same year that Garza took over the Round-Up, Falcon launched his career as the Johnny Appleseed of fajitas by serving skirt steak at the Diez y Seis de Septiember celebration in Kyle, outside Austin. Falcon, who came to Austin in 1959 from his native Mercedes, began experimenting while working in an east side meat market. He had heard that folks back home were eating beef skirt, which was a new dish to him. “The first fajita I ever ate,” he recalls, “I made myself in Austin in the sixties.”

Cooking on a gas grill and eschewing marinade or seasoning, Falcon served fajitas in Kyle with flour tortillas (because they hold heat better), salsa, and a dash of salt. The idea didn’t catch on in the small town, but it did spread elsewhere. Soon he and his fifteen-person crew were traveling the state—the West Texas State Fair in Abilene, the Pecan Street fair and Aqua Fest in Austin, the Kerrville Arts and Crafts Fair, the Rio Grande Valley Livestock Show in Mercedes, and other venues—introducing people to fajitas wherever they went. Says Falcon: “The way we did things, we became a show in ourselves,” referring to his cooks’ showmanship and high jinks.

While continuing to manage the meat market on the east side, he launched Taco Tyme, his first restaurant, in 1970. Subsequently, he had a string of others under the name of Fajita King (the title bestowed on him by an Austin reporter). But until he quit in the mid-eighties, partly because the field became too crowded, his forte remained outdoor festivals. On these occasions he routinely cooked six hundred pounds of meat daily. His last Fajita King closed in the summer of 1992, and Falcon, now 55, has decided to call the restaurant business quits.

Falcon’s reputation spread quicker from Austin than Garza’s did from the border, and fajitas were well established throughout Texas by 1985. That was the year Texas A&M did a seminal study on fajitas. In it, researchers traced the origin of the fajita to the Valley, and later that year they made presentations to the National CattleWomen’s Association and magazine food editors. Coming at a time when Tex-Mex fever was peaking in New York and other places, the report crystallized the trend. Ironically, though, the fajita that had become popular was not a true fajita but rather the marinated, cut-in-strips, made-with-anything-but-skirt-steak fad food.

The great paradox of the nineties is that fajitas are everywhere and they are nowhere. You can order them from almost any menu in any city in Texas, but chances are almost 100 percent that you won’t get real skirt steak. To get the real thing, you have to journey to the Rio Grande Valley, because that is where people are serious about fajitas. Rene Hinojosa, a senior vice-president of H&H Foods, the largest meat supplier in the region, estimates that half the skirt steak eaten in America is consumed in the Valley. (In a concession to mass taste, most Valley restaurants have also started offering chicken or beef strips grilled with bell pepper and onions.)

Where fajitas are concerned, Valley restaurants have no peers, a fact I established beyond a doubt while eating my way from Brownsville to Laredo. In Brownsville I had my fieriest meal—fajita encebollada, skirt steak buried in grilled onions and serranos—at Los Camperos (1440 International Boulevard, 210-546-8172). My only complaint was that the beef was chewy; indeed, the spacious restaurant is better known for its chicken. In Laredo I had my most agreeable light meal—a mouth-watering arrachera taco with a dab of guacamole at the cozy Tacolare (1206 San Bernardo, 727-5115). I also enjoyed a rich Fajita Sombero—beef grilled with onion, bell pepper, tomato, and bacon, topped with melted cheese, and served under a bed of tortillas—at Laredo’s new Fajita Sombrero (2919 San Bernardo, 725-3831).

But the spiritual home of the fajita remains the area around McAllen, Edinburg, Pharr, and San Juan. Unfortunately, both of Otilia Garza’s restaurants are now closed (she is scouting new locations in Austin and San Antonio), but if I had to choose the best of the rest, I would go with Don Pancho’s in San Juan (107 N. Raul Longoria Road, 781-3601). In a long, low, tastefully decorated room across the street from the Virgen de San Juan del Valle Shrine, Don Pancho’s starts its fajita dinner off with chips and a bowl of ripsnorting salsa combining árbol, jalapeño, and serrano peppers. That’s followed by soothing vegetable soup, heavy on the cabbage. The butterflied fajita, which comes with rice and beans, couldn’t be more moist, tender, and savory. It is charred crunchy around the edges and has just a hint of smokiness (imparted by cooking over pumice rocks on a grill). Don Pancho’s serves fajitas in several other forms as well, but I was too full to try any more, let alone the house specialty—french-fried squash.

But if you want to do your own survey, besides Don Pancho’s there are other fine choices. One of the most appealing is La Parrilla in Edinburg (1328 N. Closner, 383-9066), a bright and lovely L-shaped restaurant with polished wood beams and an indoor fountain. Here proprietor Janice de Leon, daughter-in-law of Otilia Garza, serves fajitas patterned after those from the Round-Up, the main difference being that La Parrilla uses inside skirt instead of outside. Another good possibility is La Casa del Taco in McAllen (1100 Houston, 631-8193 or 631-8194), which offer an arrachera it claims is more tender than its fajita, though I discerned no difference. And just down the street is the maddeningly inconsistent Johnny’s Mexican Food (1010 Houston, 686-9061 or 686-3081), whose menu lists no fewer than seven different fajita combinations.

That variety alone suggests how much fajitas have diversified, even on their home turf, but at least there are places in Texas where you can still get the real thing. In other parts of the state and country, when you order fajitas you never know what you’ll be served. But in the Valley the word still has integrity. There you can count on getting an honest skirt steak—a little tough but eminently tasty. Given the scarcity of the unvarnished truth these days, that counts for a lot.

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