How many dishes are subject to serious academic scrutiny?
Well, let’s take a look. “Evaluating the efficacy of enriched cooked whole egg in modulating biological activities beneficial to health” sort of qualifies. Or there is “Mapping of preferences for whole grain and high fiber products: whole wheat bread and snack of rice and extruded beans”.
What…? These people really need marketing advice.
At least when Texas A&M graduate student Homer Recio published his research on skirt steak with Mary K. Sweeten in 1985, the pair gave it a catchy title. Are you more likely to choose “Coffee bioactives regulate lipid metabolism in Caenorhabditis elegans” – a University of Massachusetts thriller – or “Fajitas South Texas Style”.
Not really a question. Recio and Sweeten even spiced things up with a bit of mystery. Researching the origins of fajitas and talking about the border of Texas and Mexico, they wrote, “Historically, in this region of southern Texas, secrets are never easily revealed.
Yeah. No wonder the question of whether fajitas are Mexican, Tex-Mex, or chili-inspired remains so tricky.
Fajitas feature on menus at La Tortuga in Seaside and La Casa del Sazón in Monterey, to name just two. At the Mexican-inspired Hay’s Place in Pebble Beach, they stand out. But the dish is also common in national chains, bistros – heck, it’s hard to find a kitchen that doesn’t serve fajitas.
“I had some in Mexico, so I think they are,” says Weekly Editor-in-chief Celia Jiménez, who is from the country, might therefore be able to give us some advice.
Moments later, however, she came back with “By Google search, fajitas are not Mexican, but Tex-Mex.”
Chili’s attempted to claim the dish in 1984 when the chain added fajitas to the menu. And it caused a sensation. Indeed, it was the sudden, omicron-like spike in demand for the humble skirt steak that alerted Recio and led to groundbreaking research.
However, one popular place in Houston – Ninfa’s – had introduced fajitas to its menu (first as tacos al carbon) in the early 1970s. And the German-born chef of Austin’s Hyatt Regency, George Weidmann , launched the hotel’s La Vista restaurant with “sizzling fajitas” on the menu in 1982.
By 1984, Weidmann and his team were making 13,000 or more orders of fajitas each month, according to composer Joel Beckerman, who studied the effect of this sizzling sound in his book. Sonic Boom: how sound transforms the way we think, feel and buy.
Writing about the “fajita effect”, Beckerman explained “the boom moment of the first sizzle of the night always set off a multi-sensory chain reaction that had the whole diner wanting the dish.”
Fajita research is wide-ranging.
Back on the trail. In one Texas monthly play, John Morthland recounted the sizzling fajitas served at the Round-Up Restaurant in the small town of Pharr in 1969. But as Sweeten and Recio noted 16 years later, “Although Texans have long enjoyed fajitas, this food… isn’t eaten in most parts of the United States because people don’t know it. Many people have simply never heard of fajitas.
Everything seems so long ago.
A number of food writers credit Sonny Falcon with bringing the dish to fame in Texas. He set up a fajita stand every year at a popular festival in another small town – Kyle – beginning in 1969. So it was already a regional favorite, but slow to make its way into kitchens.
Some say Falcon dubbed the grilled skirt steak strips “fajitas” — faja is Spanish for belt, something what the cut of meat looks like. Recio and Sweeten traced the use of the word as far back as the 1930s. And their work traced the origin of fajitas to frontier ranches in Texas, where cowboys, vaqueros – yes, the same thing – and other ranch employees were treated to the unwanted skirt.
But there’s an interesting tidbit in Morthland’s 1993 item. Otilia Garza, owner of the Round-Up restaurant, said she learned the art of grilling the tough cut from a grandmother who owned a restaurant in Mexico.
A common long course of skirt steak in Mexico is called tacheras. But there’s another one that’s more like what we call fajitas.
“We have something similar called alambre,” Jiménez points out.
By tradition, fajitas involved skirt steak, although chefs broke away from this regime when the dish became widely known. Blame Weidmann. He started improving the ingredients. Hyatt, you know.
Alambre can draw on many proteins and vegetables, as well as cheese. Americans traveling to Mexico have called it “wholesale fajitas” to a “gooey mess” (in a good way).
So is the dish Mexican or American? Do we really want to go back upstairs? All the researchers can tell us for sure, apparently, is that the sizzling platter sounds amazing.
It’s the best we can do.