If you go to the site spanishdict.com and type in the word “faja”, you get this result, which says the word translates as “corset”.  Alternate translations are “strip” and “band”, which approximates the band of diaphragm muscle in the cow that yields the cut we call a skirt steak (photo here). The skirt steak is tough but tasty, and is the original source of the beef used in fajitas, an entree made of thin sliced and grilled skirt steak.

So who invented the fajita? According to Robb Walsh in his article on the original Ninfa’s, Spanish cowboys called vaqueros deserve the honor:

… the originators of what we call fajita tacos were the Hispanic ranch hands of West Texas who were given the head, intestines and other unwanted beef cuts such as the diaphragm as part of their pay. They pounded the diaphragm, marinated it with lime juice, grilled it, then cut it up and ate the meat with salsa and condiments on flour tortillas, which became common in Texas in the 1930s. (Although the name fajita and the serving style are unique to Texas, a similar grilled diaphragm “steak” is also common in Nuevo Leon, where it is called arrachera al carbon.)

To note, there is inside skirt steak and outside skirt steak. The inside is one source of cheap supermarket fajita meat. The outside is notably more tender, and that’s the cut of meat Ninfa’s uses on their fajitas. But the problem for the rest of us is the Japanese are now buying almost all of our fajita meat. As Robb Walsh explains:

In 1988, the U.S.-Japan Beef and Citrus Agreement reclassified outside skirt, the cut that started the fajita craze, as tariff-free offal. The Japanese, who used to pay the equivalent of a 200 percent tariff on U.S. beef, now buy our outside skirt steak with no tariff at all. They are currently importing 90 percent of it.

This means all kinds of meats are used these days to make fajitas, because cost and supply have cut us off from the original meat (see Robb’s article on fajita meat for more details). So as a practical matter, a fajita will often be a tougher cut of meat, usually marinated, grilled and then served on a hot comal along with brown carmelized onions and grilled peppers. Other people disagree about this course of preparation. Jim Payton of the site lomexicano.com insists that fajitas not be marinated at all, though he yields to tenderizing the meat. He also suggests adding lime juice to your hot griddle at the end, in order to juice up the smoke and steam.

As a critic, I’m looking for these things in a beef fajita.

  1. An appropriate cut of meat. I prefer my fajitas marinated, under most circumstances. The meat should not be too tough, but it shouldn’t be fall off the bone tender either. If you’re not tenderizing the meat, why bother cooking this way?
  2. Meat cut into strips across the grain, and thoroughly cooked, on all sides. And by cooked, I do mean grilled, not roasted or baked.
  3. Great flavor.
  4. Fajitas served hot, and served on an adequately hot plate. A cast iron comal is preferred. Like Japanese one pot dishes, the spectacle is part of what I should be paying for. Further, the plate needs to be hot else I’ll end up eating cold food before I run out of tortillas.
  5. Appropriate sides. I want caramelized onions and grilled peppers. I want hot steamy tortillas. I want, and seldom get, the quantity of pico de gallo I really like in fajitas.

I’ve largely avoided eating fajitas in reviews of restaurants because the average restaurant outside Texas botches their fajitas. But as I’m going to begin doing so, I thought people ought to know what criteria I use to judge fajitas.

Random thoughts afterwards:

Although Ninfa’s claims to have invented the fajita are probably incorrect, it is true that the original Ninfa’s on Navigation helped ignite the fajita craze in the United States. Houstonians have been grateful ever since.

Another interesting view of the origin of the fajita is here.

According to Houston ex pats, Tex-Mex in the big Apple genuinely sucks.

Robb Walsh has written some great food articles. If anyone has ever wondered where American kobe beef came from, he has an answer.

And almost certainly off subject, but since the fajita craze has driven the costs of things like flank steak to absurd proportions, please also note that chicken wings are now more expensive than chicken breasts, due to the public’s taste for buffalo wings.

If I had to choose an inexpensive cut of meat for fajitas at home, some of the milanesa steaks that can be found at the International Markets (usually about $3.99/lb or so) would be a place to start.