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On April 8th, 2018, 1-4 p.m., The Ninfa Laurenzo Scholarship Fund will hold its first fundraiser, TACOS OVER TEXAS, in collaboration with El Tiempo Cantina and the Original Ninfa’s on Navigation. The event will bring together over a dozen chefs from around the nation in a friendly competition honoring the legacy of Mama Ninfa Laurenzo and celebrating the history and transformation of Houston’s passion for multicultural food. Guests will enjoy a specialty taco from each chef, beer and margaritas, live music and more – all while benefiting those in need. Ninfa often talked about the importance of giving.  “We all have so much that we must share with each other.” 

Tickets are $40 per person for general admission and $200 for VIP admission. Note: VIP ticket holders will have early access from 12:00 noon to 1:00 p.m. The gates are open at 1:00 p.m. for for all ticket holders.

Terron Henry, Cool Runnings Jamaican Grill; Nierman Shaw, Niermanz Food Boutique; Dominic Laurenzo, El Tiempo Cantina; Alex Padilla, The Original Ninfa’s; Juan Arellano, Tony Mandola’s; Johnny Carrabba, Carrabba’s; Greg Gatlin and Michelle Wallace, Gatlin’s BBQ; Sandy Tran and Anne Le, Tout Suite; Kiran Virma, Kiran’s; Justin Martin and Elliot Roddy, Fuel Kitchen and Health Bar; Max Torres and Jeff Weinstock, Cake and Bacon; Charles Bishop, Presidio; Michael and David Cordua, Cordua Restaurants; Ken Bridges, Standard Taco, Ritual, Pinks Pizza; Robert Del Grande, Cafe Annie; Donny Navarrete, Laurenzo’s; Hayden Hulings, Your Table. All will be presenting unique gourmet tacos to the fundraiser guests and the judges.  As a judge, I found that we will be sequestered away from the competition prior to the judging (as we know most of the chefs and might be biased). Houston Chronicle Food Editor Greg Morago wrote an article about the competition on Wednesday, April 4th in the Chron’s STARFLAVOR section which I knew immediately that I must not even glance at… as it featured photos of various tributes and the chefs.

Please come out and support this fundraiser!

Now a little bit about Mama Ninfa’s famous FAJITAS 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 skirt steak 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 “outside 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 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). Better restaurants use only outside skirts.

The skirt steaks today are usually marinated prior to grilling. This process is actually  for flavor and tenderizing the meat if cooking with inside skirts steaks, although acid (often citrus) in the marinade does tenderize the meat slightly. If cooking outside skirt steaks, they are preferable. 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) 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.

Roland 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,  grilled shrimp or grilled chicken breasts are 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 El Tiempo Cantinas:

Mama Ninfa’s Fajita Recipe

Ingredients

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 she thought 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.

Directions:

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.

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 skirts steaks for up to 2 hours.

Grill over HOT wood, a charcoal or gas grill, 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 and were done in El  Tiempo Cantina with the courteous help of Roland Laurenzo… Copyright 2018 Jack Tyler.

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