Cooking Like A Mexican

Beef Fajitas

So, this is Gringo Gazette’s birthday gift from me, highly unapproving on my part, but for my boss who has labored on this paper on your behalf for 25 years, I will give her a TexMex recipe. But I’ll be damned if I will go as low as acknowledging Taco Bell as Mexican.

BEEF FAJITAS. Beef fajita history is deeply rooted in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. As the name might indicate, TexMex foods were proudly created in Texas by the Tejanos – the people of Mexican descent living in Texas in the 1800s and back then, Texas was still Mexico so HA! Fijatas are Mexican after all!

 The cuisine created by these Texans ended up becoming the ultimate comfort food. Fajitas are a popular food in most parts of the country – especially the Southwest. 

fajitas.JPGFajitas literally translates to “little strap”, "little belt" or "sash", which refers to the long, thin shape of a skirt steak. Today, skirt steak is a popular cut of meat – and the price reflects that. It wasn’t always that way, though. To keep costs down, the vaqueros, (cowboys),  were paid five bucks per day, and were fed the most inexpensive food.  One day, the head vaquero on the Chapparosa Ranch outside Del Rio, Texas noticed that the butcher would cut the strap muscle, or skirt steak, off the cow and either throw it in with the scraps to be sold to dog food companies or sell it to customers for dog food.  Because of the toughness and the large amount of tendon in the skirt steak, the butcher would not use it for ground meat. 

On a lucky day, the head vaquero asked the butcher if he could buy the skirt steak for his men, and the butcher began to save the skirt steak for the head vaquero each week. Dog owners wish it was still this way, don’t they? It was a throwaway cut of meat until ranchers started to give their Mexican vaqueros the cut as part of their pay.

The vaqueros experimented with various ways of cooking and preparing the skirt steak and discovered the best way to tenderize it and make it palatable was to marinate it in either lime juice or tequila. This was way back when tequila was cheap too. To tenderize it, grill sear it over a mesquite wood fire so the tendon would soften up, and slice it across the grain to further decrease its toughness and wrap them up in warm tortillas. Over the next few years, skirt steak became the main source of beef for the vaqueros on the ranch.  The fajita was born, but it remained a regional dish only made by vaqueros and their families.

It wasn’t until a little over a 100 years after, in 1969 that beef fajita history began to affect modern cuisine. The Austin Texas Chronicle tells the story of Sonny Falcon, an Austin meat manager, who opened a fajitas concession stand at the Dies y Seis celebration in September, 1969, in Kyle, Texas.

Later that year, beef fajitas made another appearance in the Rio Grande Valley community of Pharr at Otilia Garza’s Round-Up Restaurant. This was the first time that fajitas made an appearance at a restaurant. Garza was the first to serve them up in the now traditional manner: a sizzling cast-iron platter of sliced skirt steak with a side of warm flour tortillas, guacamole, pico de gallo, and grated cheese. She wanted people to be able to build a fajita taco at the table out of the contents.

Today, you can find fajitas on the menu of every Mexican restaurant (and many non-Tex-Mex restaurants as well) because of their popularity, not because we have adopted them as Mexican. Although very few versions still capture the spirit of the campfire-grilled skirt steak, the sizzling platter is a standard in every restaurant, but so are finger burns. No matter that the waiter tells the guest not to touch, they touch. Fast-food restaurants have gotten rid of the platter and put their own twist on fajitas. T

echnically, fajitas can only be made with a “little strap” of beef – but these fast-food restaurants use all kinds of meats in their versions, because there is no fast food police to tell them otherwise. (If there were, there would be no Taco Bell). Most people associate the word "Fajita" as a catchall term for make-it-yourself tacos with some sort of meat, fish or vegetable with peppers and onions cooked in a skillet and served on a sizzling plate that makes your clothes stink.

A simple meal of Fajitas, guacamole, pinto beans and salsa on a fresh lard-free flour tortilla is a reasonably well-balanced meal.  Fajitas are a terrific source of protein, iron phosphorous, riboflavin, thiamin, niacin, and vitamin B-12.  Properly trimmed Fajitas contain considerably less fat than typical fast foods such as hamburgers.  The flour tortillas contain a variety of B vitamins, and both the guacamole and salsa contain vitamins A and C.  If you bother to put cheese on the Fajita, you are not only adding calories, but a significant amount of calcium.  So, in addition to tasting good, Fajitas are good for you.

Mesquite is the traditional and ideal method for cooking Fajitas due to its very high 800 to 1,000-degree searing heat and the sweet honey woodsy taste it imparts on the skirt steak. the wood makes everything from railroad ties to furniture, and good clean burning charcoal.


Lime Marinade (see recipe at the end)

1 1/2 pounds skirt steak or flank steak

1 green or red bell pepper, cored, seeded, and thinly sliced

1 small onion thinly sliced

3 tomatoes chopped

Salt and pepper to taste

Shredded cheddar cheese

Sour cream


Tomato Salsa

Flour Tortillas


Prepare Lime Marinade; set aside.

Lay the skirt steak on a cutting board and remove the outer membrane (grab the membrane with one hand and slide the knife beneath it, cutting as you go).  Using a sharp paring knife, make a number of slits in the meat, cutting both with and against the grain of the meat (this cuts the muscle fiber and reduces any toughness.)

In a large plastic bag with the Lime Marinade, add skirt steak; reseal and marinate in the refrigerator at least 1 hour or overnight, turning steak occasionally.

Remove steak from refrigerator and bring to room temperature before cooking.

Preheat barbecue. (or avoid the whole barbecue hassle and just throw the fajitas on a skillet with a tablespoon of oil)

Drain steaks, reserving marinade.  Place steaks on the hot grill and spoon some of the reserved marinade over the steak.  Close barbecue lid, open any vents, and cook 3 to 5 minutes for medium-rare (120 degrees F. if you have a meat thermometer).  Remove from grill and transfer to a cutting board; cut on the diagonal into thin strips.

If you have a Comal, throw the flour tortillas on it and heat on both sides over medium heat, if you are shamefully using a microwave, wrap a stack of flour tortillas lightly in paper towels and warm on high for 6 or 7 seconds per tortilla.

While the shirt steak is cooking, grill the green pepper and onion slices 1 to 2 minutes or until soft; remove from grill and place on a serving platter.  Place cooked steak strips onto the same platter.

For each fajita, fill a warm flour tortilla with cooked steak strips and desired amounts of green pepper and onion slices.  Add tomatoes, cheddar cheese, sour cream, guacamole, and salsa as desired; roll up like a burrito and enjoy.

For the lime marinade:

Juice of 4 to 5 fresh-squeezed limes

1/4 cup red wine vinegar

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 tablespoon light molasses

1 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro leaves

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

In a large re-sealable plastic bag, combine lime juice, vinegar, soy sauce, molasses, cilantro, garlic, cumin, and pepper; set aside.