By Amy McCarthy
By Scott Reitz
By Scott Reitz
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Alice Laussade
By City of Ate
Jonathan Kauffman at the Seattle Weekly (a sister paper of the Dallas Observer and the Houston Press) attended the Sacrificio class and wrote about it. He saw it as a collision of "a host of food trends," including the rise of farmers markets, the labeling of artisanal producers on menus, the growing concerns about conditions in slaughterhouses and the new "Nose to Tail" attitude about eating the whole animal. Inspired by The Omnivore's Dilemma, in which Michael Pollan goes hunting and butchers a wild hog, young urban food lovers are seeking to understand and deepen their own relationships with meat.
The "get to know your meat" movement looks a little different from our vantage point here in Texas. Pollan's sense of irony about an intellectual like himself wielding a rifle sounds pretty silly if you hunt routinely. But meat eaters across the country want to know where their meat is coming from.
The dark-brown fajitas at the Original Mama Ninfa's on Navigation Street in Houston came on a sizzling cast-iron comal with lots of caramelized onions. "It's Certified Hereford outside skirt steak. It's not marinated at all. It's just seasoned with salt and pepper and brushed lightly with soy sauce as it comes off the grill," according to the Ninfa's meat buyer, an outspoken chef named Mark Mavrantonis.
Ninfa's has to pay "a pretty penny" to get the hard-to-come-by USDA choice outside skirt steak, Mavrantonis said. The Japanese have driven most restaurants out of the market. Ninfa's is the only restaurant in Texas where I have seen American outside skirt in the last few years, and they serve it there to preserve a tradition.
The beef was cooked to well done and cut into thin strips against the coarse grain. It was so tough you had to pinch the tortilla to keep from pulling the meat strips out with your teeth when you took a bite. But the beef was also very flavorful. The Original Mama Ninfa's on Navigation is the restaurant that made fajitas famous. Thank goodness they still taste like they did in the old days.
A few years ago, under a tent set up on Auditorium Shores for the Hill Country Wine and Food Festival in Austin, Juan Antonio "Sonny" Falcon, the man who calls himself "The Fajita King," addressed a Tex-Mex panel discussion. Falcon claims that during the 1960s, while working as a butcher at Guajardo's Cash Grocery in East Austin, he gave "fajitas" their name while he experimented with the diaphragm muscle. Falcon can document the first time he sold fajitas to the public. It was at a Diez y Seis celebration in Kyle in September of 1969.
Falcon's fame drew a big crowd to the tent, including a couple of hecklers. Some fellow Tejanos from the Lower Rio Grande Valley loudly contended that their grandmothers were making fajitas before Falcon was born.
"I like Sonny Falcon. I went to school with him. But he didn't invent fajitas," said Liborio "Libo" Hinojosa, whose family owns H&H Meat Products in Mercedes, one of the Valley's biggest meat suppliers. "The Lion Mart in Brownsville was selling fajitas at their meat counter way before 1969."
An archival search of Brownsville newspapers turns up a grocery store display ad featuring fajitas from 1971, which would suggest that fajitas weren't a new item in Brownsville. But the most remarkable thing about the ad is the fact that fajitas were selling for 99 cents a pound, while T-bone steaks were going for 79 cents a pound. Maybe outside skirt steak never was all that cheap.
The first restaurant to popularize fajitas in Austin was at the Hyatt Hotel. The beef was served on a sizzling comal with onions and peppers and the signature spread of flour tortillas, guacamole, salsas and condiments. But the hotel chef at the Hyatt balked at serving chewy skirt steak. Instead, he substituted sirloin. It wasn't long afterward that chicken fajitas made their debut. The fact that chickens don't have skirt steaks didn't seem to bother anyone.
As far as butchery classes go, Beef 101 at Texas A&M is the granddaddy of them all and way ahead of the trend. Davey Griffin set up the first class more than 20 years ago. It's a comprehensive overview of the beef industry from stockyard to cutting floor offered three times a year, and it's almost always booked solid with food industry pros.
Day two of Beef 101 started with an anatomy class by Griffin in which we learned the location of each cut of meat on a cattle skeleton nicknamed "Bossy." There were some surprises. "This is the infraspinatus muscle," said Griffin, holding up a plastic-wrapped cut of meat, "the second-tenderest cut of beef after the tenderloin—and it comes from the shoulder clod." Sometimes called the top blade, it is the cut that yields the newly popular flatiron steaks.
After the lecture, we suited up. Dressed in a hairnet and a hard hat, white frock and apron, a Kevlar glove and sleeve, and a metal chest protector, I strapped on my knife holder and entered the work area.
Led by Jeff Savell, my Beef 101 team took a meat saw to the 600-pound side of beef, cutting it into chuck, rib, loin and round—the four primal regions. The shoulder, or chuck, is the front end—that's where the brisket and shoulder clod come from. Most of it ends up as ground meat. The rib and loin yield the valuable "middle meats" prized in steak houses. The rump end is known as the round; it was once cut into giant round steaks, and now it yields such prizes as the eye of round roast.