On The Range: Fajitas

I made a rather startling discovery while continuing my quest into the origins of Tex-Mex.

For some reason I had assumed fajitas were a California addition, perhaps because of their ready adoption in to the presumably healthier Cal-Mex lineup. But no--legend credits Ninfa's in Houston, although according to Robb Walsh's seminal work The Tex-Mex Cookbook, fajitas are as Tejano as Rudy Cisneros, Selena or Juan Seguin--originating in the Lower Rio Grande Valley in the 1940's. There, butchers called the diaphragm muscle of the steer "fajita," a diminutive version of the word faja, meaning belt, which the skirt steak resembled. It's likely, of course, that ranch hands dined on rough versions of the fajita for decades before, but simply referred to the dish as "dinner."

Houston restaurant legend Ninfa Laurenzo did take an old family recipe for fajitas and popularize it in her namesake establishment in the 70's--which Walsh attributes to starting the national craze. In a change from the traditional recipe, Laurenzo dubbed her creation "tacos al carbon," later trademarked by as "Tacos a la Ninfa."

A trip through many restaurants will actually reveal both fajitas and tacos al carbon listed on menus. What's the difference?

Tacos al carbon are usually pre-made and often served with rice, beans, guacamole, and/or queso. True fajitas, on the other hand, are presented in a manner originated by the Round-Up Restaurant in Pharr, Texas in 1969: served on a sizzling platter with onions, guacamole, salsa and flour tortillas; diners then construct their own as they see fit. Pico de gallo (literally, "rooster's beak"--made by chopping onions, tomatoes, and peppers then served as a side garnish), sour cream, rice, and black, "borracho" (drunk) or refried beans are common accompaniments. Today, the term has been expanded to include grilled chicken, shrimp, or more exotic meats, and fajitas are embraced as a healthy alternative to fat-laden Tex-Mex staples.

Virtually All Tex-Mex establishments (and many others not of the genre) feature them prominently on their menus. Such latter-day proprietors such as Joe Alonso, of Alonso's Tres Rios in McAllen, acknowledges that market demand has forced him to include nontraditional versions--chicken, for instance. Here in Dallas, they may be found in many varieties in many places. At Agave Azul Mexican Kitchen And Tequila Bar in downtown Carrollton, fajitas are the featured entrée. Marinated in tequila, lime and pepper, and served on the requisite sizzling platter alongside rice, frijoles charros, fresh guacamole, pico de gallo...and most important of all, handmade corn and flour tortillas... Agave Azul's modern-day incarnation of this classic dish is a good starting point.

Of course, they also list tacos al carbon and a number of specialty items. And, in keeping with customer demand, shrimp, veggie, and yes, chicken fajitas are available as well.

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