The State of Tex-mex: Franken-Fajitas and Tepid Tortillas

Photo: Courtesy of Broadway Books

With so much talk of fajitas this week (Robert Sietsema’s review of El Cantinero and his response to our response to the review), it’s only fitting that a recently published tome, The Tex-Mex Grill and Backyard Barbacoa Cookbook, by Robb Walsh, contains an entire chapter about their history and current state. Fajitas, you may know, get their name (“little belt”) from the diaphragm muscle known as the “outside skirt.” Sonny “the Fajita King” Falcon claims to have come up with that name when he was an East Austin grocery-store butcher and first sold them in 1969, but a Texas A&M; researcher found that Rio Grande Valley butchers used the word as early as the forties, and the dish’s origin was probably in the diaphragm tacos that ranch hands were paid with. But here’s the interesting thing: “Outside skirt steak, the cut that makes the best fajitas, has all but disappeared from retail meat markets.”

Walsh goes on to explain that after tariffs were lifted in 1988, the Japanese began importing what is now 90 percent of outside skirt. As a result, meat suppliers are now pushing other cuts (flaps, hangers, boneless short ribs, etc.) as fajita substitutes. Some restaurants use inside skirt — it isn’t as tender as the outside skirt, so meat processors soften it up by treating it with enzymes, salt, and phosphate, which requires marinating the meat in a commercial vacuum tumbler. And Walsh says it gets more complicated than that.

There isn’t enough skirt steak to satisfy the demand for fajitas, which is why the meat scientists are experimenting with other cuts. These mechanically tumbled, enzyme-treated meat cuts are all sold interchangeably under the umbrella term “beef for fajitas.” You can sample the faux fajita meat at any taqueria in Texas.

So there you have it — even if you’re enjoying skirt-steak fajitas, you’re more than likely not eating the cut that gave fajitas their name, and you may well be eating meat that’s been chemically treated. Just so you know!

And now, to continue the Tex-Mex discussion, here’s a reader tip.

I randomly ordered food tonight from this spot, Taco House, and what do you know their soft tacos came in FRESH flour tortillas. this may actually be unprecedented in NYC. Half my family is from New Mexico, and I have long talked about the shocking lack of fresh flour tortillas in the city. there are a ton of places that make fresh corn tortillas—which is what you’ll see in authentic mexican restaurants—but none that I had ever heard of that make the fresh flour version, which is a staple of tex-mex. there ARE those ghetto chinese/mexican “fresh tortillas” places, but what they make is more like an instant version of the processed tortillas you’ll find in supermarkets. the genuine article is much more pastry-like, thick, chewy on the inside, translucently greasy on the outside, and finished by grilling. and these guys had the genuine article. the food overall was just OK, but the tortillas thing is huge.

Taco House confirms that it makes its own flour tortillas. Anyone as excited about this as our tipster is?

The State of Tex-mex: Franken-Fajitas and Tepid Tortillas