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Why Houston Has The Best Fajitas

Aug 31st, 2020

We all love a good fajita. The sizzling steak, the warm tortilla, the creamy queso and the fresh, tangy salsa are enough to turn anyone into an instant fan of the dish. It’s made Tex-Mex history as one of the more popular dishes in Tex-Mex restaurants, despite its relatively short history.

If you live in our luxury Houston apartments, then you’re in luck! You’re close to one of the first places that promoted the fajita on a menu. Since you’re so close to where culinary history was made, then here’s a little bit of background information about this tasty Tex-Mex dish. 

History of the fajita

The fajita as we know it wasn’t always the sizzling dish we get served at a restaurant. In fact, the earliest mention of the fajita is of it being associated with cowboys that worked in the southern and western regions of Texas in the early 1930s. 

Back in the day of cowboys and cattle ranches, cows were regularly butchered and given to the cowboys and ranch workers for food during long cattle roundups. These cowboys would make use of nearly every piece of beef they were given, but there were still a few pieces that would often get thrown away. The head, for example, wouldn’t normally be kept, and neither would the entrails, the hide and the meat trimmings.

These pieces would normally be given to the Mexican cowboys, also known as vaqueros, as a part of the pay they received. The vaqueros turned these pieces into popular meals such as head barbeque (barbacoa de cabeza), tripe stew (menudo) and, of course, grilled skirt steak, also known as fajitas.

The term fajitas comes from the Spanish word faja for skirt, belt or girdle, and fajita is just the diminutive form of the word. The skirt steak is a long strip of meat, about 18 inches long and an inch or so thick, that is found beneath the heart and lungs of the cow. The skirts operate as diaphragm muscles and flank muscles, thus the term fajita — or “little belt” — is an apt description of the meat. 

Popularization of the fajita

Up until the 1960s, fajitas mostly existed as grilling foods for campers, cowboys and outdoorsmen. They weren’t too much of a mainstream household meal, but the dish was certainly starting to get some traction in the Texas community. 

The first commercial fajita and taco stand opened up in Austin in 1969, owned and operated by a meat market manager named Sonny Falcon. The stand debuted at a Dies y Seis celebration in rural Kyle, Texas. Falcon served his skirt steaks unseasoned and unmarinated, cooked on a hot fire and turned regularly to preserve the steaks tenderness. Later that same year, fajitas were added to the menu at Otilia Garza’s Round-Up Restaurant in Pharr, a small community in the Rio Grande Valley. This was the first time fajitas were reported to have been served hot with warm flour tortillas and an assortment of condiments like guacamole, pico de gallo and cheese. 

In 1973, Houston restaurant Ninfa’s debuted fajitas as “tacos al carbon” along with an assortment of Tex-Mex items. Ninfa Rodriguez Laurenzo, the restaurant’s owner and operator, hailed from the Rio Grande Valley and drew on her home area’s favorite foods to create her restaurant empire’s tasty menu.

A few years later in 1983, the Hyatt Regency in Austin began to serve fajitas in their hotel restaurant, calling them “a Tex-Mex beef and tortilla sandwich.” They used sirloin steak instead of the traditional skirt steak, but the 13,000 orders a month did plenty to boost the popularity of the fajita in the Texas community. 

Between the Hyatt, Ninfa’s and the Round-Up serving fajitas from the Rio Grande to Houston to Austin and Sonny Falcon’s concession stands at rodeos and festivals, it’s no surprise that the fajita’s popularity skyrocketed in Texas. Soon, the dish spread throughout the country and has since become a staple in Tex-Mex restaurants around the nation and around the world.

Where you can find Houston’s original fajitas

Now that you know the short-but-successful history of the fajita, you can visit one of the very first places that the fajita was served!

The Original Ninfa’s on Navigation is where Houston’s first fajita was offered on a menu. You can taste the exact same dish that was first served way back in 1973 by ordering Mama Ninfa’s Original Tacos Al Carbon from the menu. It will be your very own way of literally tasting and experiencing culinary history! These fajitas are served in a flour tortilla with pico de gallo, guacamole and chile con queso. 

You can find Ninfa’s on Navigation just east of Downtown Houston and just north of East Downtown in Second Ward. It’s close enough to walk to from the Buffalo Bayou Hike and Bike Trail, and it’s just a 9-minute drive from our apartments in Montrose!

How to make a fajita

Since the fajita’s invention, it’s inevitable that the recipe has changed and evolved over the course of the last half-century. Instead of being cooked exclusively with skirt steak, “fajitas” have been cooked with meats ranging from chicken to steak to pork to shrimp. The possibilities are endless!

Now that you’re a fajita expert, here are some recipes you can use to make your very own fajitas at home! After all, if you live in one of the first places the fajita was introduced to the world, you’d want to try it out for yourself, right?

Whatever type of fajita you enjoy most, you should feel proud that Houston had a part to play in introducing the fajita to the rest of the nation! So many inventions have started in Houston, and who knows what the city will come up with next?


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Featured photo courtesy Pixabay/wilkernet

Author of Article

Colleen Ford is a South African who now lives in Spokane, Washington. She loves to travel, camp (in warm weather) and bake.

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