A Texas dish with Mexican roots sizzles success not only in California and the Southwest but also in restaurants as far away from the Rio Grande as Paris
The hottest dish in town, in more ways than one, is a Texas export called fajitas.
For the uninitiated, fajitas (pronounced fah-HEAT-uhs) are strips of grilled skirt steak served with flour tortillas, guacamole and salsa and eaten wrapped in the tortillas, taco style. If they don't come to the table sizzling from the grill, they are not fit to be called fajitas.
In a trend sense, they are even hotter. The Houston Restaurant Assn. celebrated Cinco de Mayo by staging its First Annual Fajita Meet Sunday. In Pasadena, a restaurant called Manana Mexican Food and Drink on Arroyo Parkway has erected a large sign inquiring, "Have you had your chicken fajitas today?" (True fajitas are made with beef. Some restaurants offer a chicken variation.) A menu blurb at the Azteca Mexican restaurant in Venice calls fajitas "the sensational new beef or chicken entree that's making America sizzle."
Chicken aside, this is a Cinderella story for the skirt steak, a cut of meat once as neglected as the fairy tale heroine. The name fajitas comes from the Spanish faja, which means sash. The skirt is the inner diaphragm muscle of the steer. Typically thin like a sash, skirt steaks are not noted for tenderness.
"They used to be dirt cheap. They used to almost throw them away, like junk," said Bud Smith, a Texan who grew up in Pharr, near the Mexican border.
No longer "junk," skirt steaks can command top prices. The Irvine Ranch Farmer's Market displayed beef plate skirt steak at $4.99 a pound recently, and John E. Tusquellas Meats in the Farmer's Market charged $4.59 a pound for what the butcher said was a better cut than ordinary skirt.
In other parts of the city, prices are lower. Skirt steaks were $2.99 a pound at Zamora Bros. Meats on Brooklyn Avenue. Howard's Quality Meats in the Grand Central Public Market was charging $2.89 a pound this week, and Economy Meats in the same market had two prices: $2.99 for steak trimmed of some of its fat and $2.79 for whole, untrimmed skirt steak.
Texans generally get a better buy. Recently, Rice Food Markets in Houston advertised "beef fajitas " at $1.98 a pound. A newly opened El Guero supermarket in the same city offered whole skirt steaks for $1.99 a pound while a nearby Fiesta Mart sold the meat cut up for barbecuing for $2.79 a pound. The Houston markets also stock a variety of fajitas seasonings, including dry spice mixtures and a liquid marinade. Most of these products contain MSG and tenderizer.
In Los Angeles, the fajitas trend is so new that the name is virtually unknown outside of restaurants. A spot check turned up no fajitas seasoning in such trend-conscious stores as By Design, Williams-Sonoma and the Irvine Ranch Farmers Market in the Beverly Center, several shops in the Farmer's Market and one branch of Jurgensen's.
The name fajitas also drew a blank from butchers in markets catering to Mexican-Americans, but for a different reason. Whereas markets in Texas label skirt steak fajitas meat, the California markets call it steak ranchero, bistec ranchero, carne ranchera, carne para asar (meat for grilling) or carne preparada para asar.
According to Texan sources, fajitas originated in San Antonio. However, others say the idea came directly from Mexico. Under a different name, arrechera, skirt steak has a venerable history in California.
The late Elena Zelayeta, who popularized Mexican cooking in California, included a recipe for Arrechera Adobada in her first cookbook, "Elena's Famous Mexican and Spanish Recipes," published in 1944. "I find skirt steak to be one of the best flavored, less expensive cuts of meat," she wrote.
In this early version of fajitas, Zelayeta marinated the meat with vinegar, oil, garlic, oregano, salt and pepper, then added tomato sauce and broiled it. By 1958, when "Elena's Secrets of Mexican Cooking" was published, she had dropped the tomato sauce and cooked the meat over the coals instead of under the broiler.
Maria del Carmen Salas of the La Parrilla Mexican restaurants in Los Angeles and Northridge says that fajitas originated with the Indians of Sonora and Chihuahua. "Cattlemen or hacendados used to kill a steer to feed themselves and took the best of the meat. Whatever was left over, and tough meat that they didn't want, was given to the Indians," she said.