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History of fajitas is short, flavor is not

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Most people aren’t compelled to ponder the geneses of the foods they like. But some dishes are so unique — Caesar Salad, the sandwich, the ice cream cone — that someone inevitably wants to go back and figure out how they came into being.

Well, in 1984 Texas A & M University animal science professor Homero Recio was wondering about the origins of fajitas. This popular Tex-Mex dish, made from marinated and grilled skirt steak served in a wheat tortilla, had an amazingly short history as far as he could tell. In fact, the word “fajita,” as a reference to a particular food, didn’t even appear in print until 1975. Yet, within a decade, it had become the hottest food craze in the country.

So Recio obtained a fellowship to get to the bottom of the phenomenon. Two years later, he concluded that, coincidentally, it was his grandfather, a butcher in Premont, Texas, in the 1930s, who may have started the ball rolling by using the term “fajita” to describe the cheap cut of beef — a thin layering of muscle that covers the diaphragm — that many of the locals considered to be somewhat undesirable. The word derives from the Spanish “faja,” for “girdle” or “strip.”

The tradition of marinating and grilling this piece of meat began in the 1940s with Mexican ranch workers living in West Texas near the Mexican border. When a steer was butchered, the workers were given the least desirable parts — the head, intestines and fajitas (also known as skirt steak). Well, the fajita, of course, was a delicacy compared to the head and intestines. The workers would tenderize the meat by pounding it and marinating it in lime juice before cooking it over an open fire. Then they’d serve it with a variety of condiments rolled in a flour tortilla.

Recio hypothesized that the first restaurant to serve something similar to what those ranch hands were eating around their campfires back in the ’40s was the Roundup in McAllen, Texas. The dish was called “botanzas,” meaning appetizers, and would not begin to capture the imaginations of Tex-Mex chefs for many more years.

The really major break through for the modern fajitas, concluded the Texas 

A & M professor, was the development of Tacos al Carbon, a menu item at Ninfa’s Restaurant in Houston in 1973. They were created at the suggestion of a customer who had just returned from a trip to Mexico City and asked the Ninfa’s staff to slice a piece of steak into thin strips so he could make a rather upscale taco. Once some tasty accompaniments were added — cilantro, onion, tomatoes, Serrano chilies, sour cream and cheese — it became a house specialty.

Then, in 1981, Ninfa’s created a variation of tacos al carbon with grilled meat strips, condiments and flour tortillas. They were placed on the menu as Fajitas for One, and Fajitas for Two. Meanwhile, the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Austin, Texas, began featuring fajitas, describing them as “a Tex-Mex beef and tortilla sandwich,” using boneless sirloin instead of the characteristic skirt steak. By 1982 they were selling 13,000 orders a month.

Technically, only beef has a fajita, but the term has been corrupted to mean any kind of meat or seafood wrapped in a tortilla. Its popularity, I think, lies in the fact that it’s a delectable combination of flavors and textures, and can be assembled with such ease.

With that said, I thought it would be fun to see where the fajita is headed, as in the case of Food Network celebrity chef, Bobby Flay’s rendition from one of his “Throw Down with Bobby Flay” episodes. So here you go!

Bobby Flay’s Red Curry Marinated Skirt Steak Fajitas

Makes 6 generous servings (2 fajitas each)

Here’s how Food Network celebrity chef Bobby Flay cranks up a classic!

1/4 cup red curry paste

1/2 cup canola oil

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

11/2 pounds skirt steak, cut in half or thirds crosswise

• Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/4 cup clover honey

12 (6-inch) flour tortillas, wrapped in foil and warmed either on the grill or in a 350-degree oven for 5 minutes

• BBQ Onions (recipe follows)

• Pickled Roasted Peppers (recipe follows)

• Avocado Crema (recipe follows)

Combine the curry paste, canola oil, 1/4 cup of the lime juice in a small blender or food processor with a small workbowl and blend until smooth.

Place the steak in a large baking dish or re-closeable plastic bag and add half the marinade. Cover the dish or seal the bag and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or up to 8 hours.

Prepare a honey-lime dressing by whisking together the honey with the remaining 2 tablespoons of lime juice in a bowl.

When ready to prepare the fajitas, heat the grill to high or a cast iron pan or griddle over high heat. Remove the steak from the marinade and season with salt and pepper on both sides. Grill the steak until golden brown and slightly charred on both sides, brushing with the reserved curry-lime marinade a few times and cook to medium-rare, about 12 minutes total. Remove from the grill and let the meat sit for 10 minutes to allow time for the juices to re-distribute. Slice the meat across the grain into thin slices. Place the meat on a platter and immediately drizzle with the honey-lime dressing.

To serve, lay warm tortillas on a flat surface, put a few slices of the beef down the center, top with the barbecued onion slices, pickled peppers and a dollop of the avocado crema. Roll and eat!

Barbequed Onions

Makes enough as a condiment for 12 small fajitas

Consider using a grill pan designed to cook vegetables over the grill; otherwise, the smaller rings of onion might end up falling through the grate.

2 sweet onions, cut into 1/4-inch thick slices (don’t separate the rings)

• Canola or olive oil

• Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon barbecue rub of your choice

2 to 3 tablespoons barbecue sauce (select a classic preparation with a bit of sweetness, but very zesty)

Heat the grill to medium. Brush the onion slices with the oil and season with salt and pepper. Season one side of the slices with the barbeque rub, then place the onions, rub-side down either directly on the lightly greased grate or in a lightly greased grill pan (with holes in it), and cook until lightly golden. Flip over and brush the top side with barbecue sauce and continue grilling just until cooked through. Separate the slices into rings before serving.

Pickled Roasted Peppers

Makes enough as a condiment for 12 small fajitas

1 cup white wine vinegar

1/2 cup apple cider vinegar

1 clove garlic, thinly sliced

2 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon kosher salt

2 roasted red bell peppers, peeled, seeded and thinly sliced

2 roasted yellow bell peppers, peeled, seeded and thinly sliced

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh oregano leaves

Combine the vinegars, garlic, sugar and salt in a small saucepan over high heat and bring to a boil. Simmer until the sugar is dissolved; remove from heat and let cool to room temperature.

Put the peppers and oregano in a medium bowl, add the vinegar mixture and stir to combine. Cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or up to 3 or 4 days.

Avocado Crema

Makes enough as a condiment for 12 small fajitas

2 ripe Haas avocados, peeled, pitted and chopped

1/4 cup water

• The juice of 1 lime

2 tablespoons unseasoned rice vinegar

1 teaspoon honey

1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro leaves

• Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Combine the avocados, water, lime juice, rice vinegar and honey in a blender and blend until smooth. Add the cilantro, salt and pepper and blend a few seconds just to incorporate.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist, and author of “Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit,” and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at, or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at


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