Complaint Desk

No, Chili's, You Did Not Invent the Fajita

If you've found yourself in a Chili's dining room lately, hopefully you took the opportunity, first, to reevaluate the string of life choices that led you to your seat at the wobbly high top or in the sinking booth. Then you may have noticed that the restaurant chain is involved in some historic revisionism.

Chili's thinks it can lay partial claim to the invention of the fajita.

To untuck a little truth from Chili's claims, let's start with the timeline. Their fairy tale starts, "In 1984, we made culinary history ..." By 1984, fajitas had not only been invented but also popularized by at least two Texas restaurants: Ninfa's, which is still at it, though no longer in the Metroplex, and the Hyatt Regency hotel in Austin.

Yes, a restaurant inside a chain hotel location beat Chili's to the sizzling fajitas concept by two full years. You don't get to claim any piece of culinary history when a Hyatt Regency on an I-35 feeder road beats you to the pico de gallo punch.

"Since then," the menu continues, "we've led the way in taking fajitas to new heights by loading them up with fresh, bold, unexpected flavors." There are bigger problems with this part of the story than the fact that every generic chain in America serves the same "bold, unexpected" fajita "flavors" — beef, chicken, shrimp — as Chili's.

Cultural appropriation isn't the issue at hand, either. Chili's is the Dallas-based bell cow of the Brinker International corporate restaurant behemoth, headquartered off 635 and Hillcrest. All they've appropriated is a dish that is mostly Tex-Mex in origin.

According to the folks at What's Cooking America, Mexican ranch workers living in the Rio Grande Valley first put skirt steak, largely a throwaway cut, to tortilla in the 1930s or 1940s. Then came The Fajita King Sonny Falcon's one-man fajita operation based in Kyle, just south of Austin, in 1969. Then came Ninfa's in 1973; then Austin's Hyatt Regency in 1982. Every step along the way happened in Texas — just not in a soulless Chili's franchise.

The bigger issue here is runaway corporate marketing. The marketeers at Brinker know that these days "authenticity" is a bigger selling point than ever when folks decide how to spend their dining dollar. Since there's not so much as a pinch of authenticity at any Brinker location, they did what they're paid to do and manufactured some.

You can just see some stooge in a Van Heusen button-down throwing wadded up paper balls at the trash can while spitballing ideas for menu text that sings authenticity. "We invented the fajita ... Yeah, that's good!"

They knew the people who patronize their dinner mills aren't the types to call them on their blatant disdain for the facts of the matter. But that doesn't mean everyone is willing to fall for this poor attempt at marketing.

Chili's and foodies could have continued their peaceful coexistence based mainly on pretending the other doesn't exist, and all would have been fine. No. Just no. You did not "practically" invent the fajita, or even the sizzling fajita plate.
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Matt Martinez is a DFW-lifer who handles the Observer's editorial social media channels when he's not waxing cynical in our news, food and music verticals. Rest assured, he hates your favorite team. Matt studied journalism at the University of Texas and then again, for some reason, at UNT. He has written for the Austin Chronicle, the Denton Record-Chronicle and currently writes sports for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
Contact: Matthew Martinez