Fajitas: Mama Ninfa’s Original Recipe That She Introduced to the World In 1973!
Mama Ninfa Laurenzo
If it isn’t a beef skirt steak… it isn’t a fajita!
First of all, let’s get it straight exactly what fajitas are. I like to start off with what they aren’t. They aren’t chicken, or any part of a chicken. They aren’t shrimp. They aren’t pork, either. However, many authentic Tex-Mex restaurants that offer genuine beef fajitas also stretch the definition of them in order to serve a broader audience, such as those who don’t care to eat beef.
So, we get a few of the frequent misconceptions about what fajitas are out of the way immediately.
The word “faja” comes from the Spanish word for “belt.” The word “fajita” means “little belt” in Spanish. Fajitas are a dish with roots in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, made from only one cut of meat: skirt steak. Preferably the “inside skirt”. So, what is a skirt steak? A skirt steak is a strip around 18 inches long and about ¾ to one-inch thick – and it is in the beef carcass beneath the heart and lungs, so fajita (little belt) is an apt nickname for this cut of meat.
There are four skirts per beef carcass, yielding about 8 lbs. of meat. The two outside skirts are the diaphragm muscle from the forequarter (Preferable and needs very little marinade to tenderize it… but mostly for flavor) and the two inside skirts are the secondary flank muscle from the hindquarter (and these need the marinade to tenderize as well as for flavor… cheaper and less desirable). Better restaurants use only outside skirts.
The skirt steaks today are usually marinated prior to grilling. This process is actually more for flavor than for tenderizing the meat if cooking with outside skirts steaks, although acid (often citrus) in the marinade does tenderize the meat slightly. If cooking inside skirt steaks, they are less tender and require two hours of marinading. Skirt steaks are far more flavorful than many other cuts of beef, such as sirloin, chuck, flank and round steaks… and when cooked properly, they are very tender, as well as gloriously flavorful.
Historically, fajitas have been eaten in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas since the cattle drives in the 1930’s, where animals were butchered and the Mexican cowboys (Vaqueros) were given the strip steaks as throw-away cuts of meat (dumb gringos!). There are many stories of the history of fajitas and many claims to being the first to sell fajitas to us gringos. Fajitas appear to have made the leap from cattle drive campfire and backyard grill obscurity to commercial sales in 1969. Sonny Falcon, an Austin meat market manager, operated the first commercial fajita taco stand (his Fajitas were unseasoned and unmarinated) stand at a rural Dies Y Seis celebration in a little Texas town of Kyle in September of 1969. However, what most people know as Fajitas were first sold in the Mexican/American barrio of Houston.
Mama Ninfa Laurenzo, a widowed mother of five children,started selling fajitas as Tacos al Carbon around 1973 in a little five-table restaurant (where the family’s tortilla factory used to be) with the help of her five children. She quickly began marketing them as “Fajitas” and they started showing up in Tex-Mex restaurants all over Texas. They soon became a staple in Mexican and Tex-Mex restaurants across the U.S. in the early 80’s and the rest is known by almost everyone everywhere. Although, in the late 1980’s, Mama Ninfa’s recipe was sought by Tex-Mex cooks and restaurateurs, but never cloned exactly. Even though many chefs came close, many restaurants left out the most important ingredients… the namesake, Fajitas (skirt steaks). And that is the case today, particularly in the northern United States.
Rolando Laurenzo, owner of El Tiempo Cantina’s and Laurenzo’s and Ninfa’s son.
So, now that we have established the fact that grilled beef, such as sirloin, tri-tip, chuck steaks, flank steaks, OR grilled shrimp, or grilled chicken breastsare NOT fajitas(Calling grilled chicken “Chicken Fajitas” doesn’t make them fajitas!), let’s get to making some REAL fajitas. The recipe that Mama Ninfa described to me in the ‘80’s is very similar to this one, but other than her sons and grandsons (in the restaurant business in Houston) she never gave away the EXACT written-down recipe to anyone (as far as I know), but what I DO know came directly from Mama Ninfa and was confirmed by her son, Rolando (Roland) Laurenzo… patriarch of the Laurenzo family and owner/president of Laurenzo’s El Tiempo Cantinas:
Mama Ninfa’s Original Fajita Recipe
1 large orange, zested
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons fresh lemon zest
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup pineapple juice (no matter who in Mama Ninfa’s family talked about the recipe, ALL mentioned how important pineapple juice was in the mix in the early days on Navigation Boulevard in Houston).
1/4 cup soy sauce
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tablespoon black pepper
2 dried chiles de arbol crushed
2 skirt steaks no more than 3/4 inch thick.
12 warm flour tortillas
Condiments such as Pico de Gallo, Cilantro, Sour Cream, Guacamole, etc.
Grate the orange and lemon zests. Combine the zest with the water, the pineapple juice, lemon juice, soy sauce, garlic, black pepper and chiles, in a large baking dish.
Outside skirt steaks with the membrane attached, which must be removed (peeled).
Using a sharp knife, remove any membrane or silver skin from the meat. In most supermarkets, this membrane will already have been removed. If the meat is thicker than 3/4″ thick at the thickest part, cut it in half horizontally (butterfly) so that it will cook evenly. Place the skirt steak in the marinade and turn to coat. Cover the dish with plastic wrap and marinate at room temperature for 2 hours if inside skirt steak… or, 1 hour if outside skirt steaks.
Skirt steaks ready to marinate.
Marinate inside skirts steaks for 2 hours and outside for 1 hour.
Grill over HOT wood or charcoal fire.
Grill for 5-7 minutes per side, turning frequently.
On a charcoal or gas grill, grill the meat for 5-7 minutes on each side, or until done. Cut crosswise in one-half-inch strips and serve with grilled onions, jalapenos and server hot and steaming. The Laurenzo family also serves the fajitas on a table grill to keep them hot. Part if the evolution of the recipe that the family has made over the decades also includes a ramekin of drawn garlic/lemon butter to dunk the strips in when served.
The recipe above reflects the words to me from Mama Ninfa Laurenzo, family history, and verified for accuracy by her son, Roland Laurenzo.
Photo of Mama Ninfa is courtesy of Mama Ninfa’s family. Photos of prep, marinating, grilling and presentation are by Jack Tyler. Copyright 2014 Jack Tyler.