FAJITAS

Times Staff Writer

A Texas dish with Mexican roots sizzles success not only in California and the Southwest but also in restaurants as far away from the Rio Grande as Paris

The hottest dish in town, in more ways than one, is a Texas export called fajitas.

For the uninitiated, fajitas (pronounced fah-HEAT-uhs) are strips of grilled skirt steak served with flour tortillas, guacamole and salsa and eaten wrapped in the tortillas, taco style. If they don't come to the table sizzling from the grill, they are not fit to be called fajitas.

In a trend sense, they are even hotter. The Houston Restaurant Assn. celebrated Cinco de Mayo by staging its First Annual Fajita Meet Sunday. In Pasadena, a restaurant called Manana Mexican Food and Drink on Arroyo Parkway has erected a large sign inquiring, "Have you had your chicken fajitas today?" (True fajitas are made with beef. Some restaurants offer a chicken variation.) A menu blurb at the Azteca Mexican restaurant in Venice calls fajitas "the sensational new beef or chicken entree that's making America sizzle."

Chicken aside, this is a Cinderella story for the skirt steak, a cut of meat once as neglected as the fairy tale heroine. The name fajitas comes from the Spanish faja, which means sash. The skirt is the inner diaphragm muscle of the steer. Typically thin like a sash, skirt steaks are not noted for tenderness.

"They used to be dirt cheap. They used to almost throw them away, like junk," said Bud Smith, a Texan who grew up in Pharr, near the Mexican border.

No longer "junk," skirt steaks can command top prices. The Irvine Ranch Farmer's Market displayed beef plate skirt steak at $4.99 a pound recently, and John E. Tusquellas Meats in the Farmer's Market charged $4.59 a pound for what the butcher said was a better cut than ordinary skirt.

In other parts of the city, prices are lower. Skirt steaks were $2.99 a pound at Zamora Bros. Meats on Brooklyn Avenue. Howard's Quality Meats in the Grand Central Public Market was charging $2.89 a pound this week, and Economy Meats in the same market had two prices: $2.99 for steak trimmed of some of its fat and $2.79 for whole, untrimmed skirt steak.

Texans generally get a better buy. Recently, Rice Food Markets in Houston advertised "beef fajitas " at $1.98 a pound. A newly opened El Guero supermarket in the same city offered whole skirt steaks for $1.99 a pound while a nearby Fiesta Mart sold the meat cut up for barbecuing for $2.79 a pound. The Houston markets also stock a variety of fajitas seasonings, including dry spice mixtures and a liquid marinade. Most of these products contain MSG and tenderizer.

In Los Angeles, the fajitas trend is so new that the name is virtually unknown outside of restaurants. A spot check turned up no fajitas seasoning in such trend-conscious stores as By Design, Williams-Sonoma and the Irvine Ranch Farmers Market in the Beverly Center, several shops in the Farmer's Market and one branch of Jurgensen's.

The name fajitas also drew a blank from butchers in markets catering to Mexican-Americans, but for a different reason. Whereas markets in Texas label skirt steak fajitas meat, the California markets call it steak ranchero, bistec ranchero, carne ranchera, carne para asar (meat for grilling) or carne preparada para asar.

According to Texan sources, fajitas originated in San Antonio. However, others say the idea came directly from Mexico. Under a different name, arrechera, skirt steak has a venerable history in California.

The late Elena Zelayeta, who popularized Mexican cooking in California, included a recipe for Arrechera Adobada in her first cookbook, "Elena's Famous Mexican and Spanish Recipes," published in 1944. "I find skirt steak to be one of the best flavored, less expensive cuts of meat," she wrote.

In this early version of fajitas, Zelayeta marinated the meat with vinegar, oil, garlic, oregano, salt and pepper, then added tomato sauce and broiled it. By 1958, when "Elena's Secrets of Mexican Cooking" was published, she had dropped the tomato sauce and cooked the meat over the coals instead of under the broiler.

Maria del Carmen Salas of the La Parrilla Mexican restaurants in Los Angeles and Northridge says that fajitas originated with the Indians of Sonora and Chihuahua. "Cattlemen or hacendados used to kill a steer to feed themselves and took the best of the meat. Whatever was left over, and tough meat that they didn't want, was given to the Indians," she said.

Salas based the La Parrilla fajitas on the way the meat was prepared in a small town near her home city of Mazatlan. There the beef strips were combined with tomatoes, onion and chiles. At La Parrilla, whole yellow chiles and poblano strips are added, and bacon squares are grilled along with the beef, which is seasoned with Worcestershire sauce and garlic salt. Grilled green onions are arranged over the top.

Fajitas used to be a simple dish. Bud Smith recalls growing up with border-style fajitas that were nothing more than plain, grilled steak cut into strips and rolled in flour tortillas. Now fajitas are subjected to a variety of treatments, some elaborate enough to flabbergast old-time ranch cooks.

Three of the recipes that follow employ Wish-Bone Italian salad dressing. At La Parrilla, the dressing is the sole ingredient of the marinade. Soy sauce also appears frequently, and teriyaki sauce is used in one marinade.

The fajitas recipe favored by Ann Criswell, food editor of the Houston Chronicle, is decidedly Oriental in character. Credited to a Chronicle photographer, Carlos Antonio Rios, the recipe includes soy sauce and ground ginger. "Texans didn't create fajitas, but we certainly have put them on the culinary map," said Criswell when she addressed the recent Festival of Southwest Cookery in Houston.

Vickie Shemaria and Mary Sweeney of the Marix Tex-Mex Cafe in West Hollywood went to San Antonio, Shemaria's birthplace, to research fajitas. "I feel that after a lot of work, we have achieved a truly authentic version of this dish, and it has become our most popular seller," Shemaria said.

The Marix marinade includes orange and lime juices, red wine vinegar, garlic, safflower oil, salt, pepper and the restaurant's MSG-less version of fajitas seasoning. After cooking, the meat is mixed with grilled onions and comes to the table sizzling on a hot metal platter. Accompaniments are flour tortillas, guacamole and pico de gallo, which is the Texan name for spicy-hot fresh salsa.

While skirt steak and fajitas are synonymous, other cuts are used occasionally. Flank steak is sometimes substituted. And fajitas are made with triangle tip roast at Federico's Mexican Restaurant, Cantina and Market Place, which opened recently in Buellton. "It has a unique flavor," said Bob Michelson, restaurant manager.

Chef Manuel Villalba, who is from Durango, Mexico, worked out Federico's recipe. The roast is marinated in soy sauce, white vinegar, water, pepper and garlic, then grilled over mesquite until medium rare. Next, the meat is cut into small cubes and sauteed lightly with onion, green pepper and tomatoes. Served on an iron griddle, the mixture is seasoned at the table with lemon juice and some of the marinade. Accompaniments include salsa, guacamole, sour cream, shredded Cheddar cheese, rice, beans and flour tortillas.

Fajitas have crossed the ocean to Paris, where they are served in Tex-Mex restaurants along with flour tortillas shipped from Amsterdam. They are also popular in New York and San Francisco and are blazing a trail across the Southwest.

At Macayo's Mexican Food Restaurants in Phoenix, Tucson and Las Vegas, the meat is marinated in a simple mixture of lime juice, garlic, salt and a dash of soy sauce. It is then sauteed with green chile strips and onion. The recipe was worked out by Gary and Stephen Johnson, sons of Woody and Victoria Johnson, who founded the restaurant chain. According to Gary Johnson, the secret of successful fajitas is "good fresh ingredients and great salsa."

Beer is a popular accompaniment to fajitas. But a recipe from Corpus Christi goes a step further by putting the beer, and also tequila, into the dish, or at least into the marinade. George Brake of La Palma supplied the recipe, which originated with Gary Miller of the Texas city.

Brake embellishes the original by adding jalapeno chile "to give it a little more fire." Other ingredients are olive oil and cilantro. The recipe calls for flank steak, and Brake says the meat is best if cooked medium to medium-well done. "Place it in a flour tortilla, add a liberal dose of guacamole and your favorite salsa and just enjoy," he said.

Down-Home, Yet International

Pam Gillespie is from San Diego in southern Texas. Her fajitas are as down-home as a Texas barbecue and as international as Houston, where she works as public relations director of the Four Seasons Hotel, Houston Center. Gillespie coats the meat with mustard, marinates it with teriyaki sauce and Italian dressing and brushes it on the grill with American-style tomato-based barbecue sauce. Then she presents it "like a curry party," accompanied by bowls of chopped tomato, onion, pico de gallo and other condiments for guests to add at will.

Houstonians have dealt with fajitas for so long they are branching out from the basic dish. Las Brazas, a Mexican restaurant at The Park in Houston Center, advertises a fajita salad. And Houston attorneys Robert J. Piro and Robert M. Welch presented fajita enchiladas at a reception featuring local celebrity cooks.

The enchiladas are stacked rather than rolled, with diced fajitas blended into a picadillo- like filling that includes cheese, almonds, raisins, chiles, onion and cinnamon. The topping is a spicy Four-Pepper Mousse that combines sweet red peppers with New Mexico, serrano and jalapeno chiles. Chili powder and cayenne make it even hotter. In a surprising contrast of spicy and bland, the mousse is lightened with whipped cream.

Welch commented on the meteoric popularity of skirt steak. "Five or six years ago, you couldn't find skirt steak in the market. They ground it into hamburger." he said.

Chicken fajitas are represented by a recipe from Las Casuelas Terraza in Palm Springs. There, chicken is boiled, cut into strips and coated with a paste of chili powder, oregano, garlic powder, orange juice and chicken broth. The meat is not grilled but reheated by sauteing.

Real Home Cooking

Patti Delgado Service, owner-operator of Las Casuelas Terraza, does not regard fajitas as a Texan dish. "Texans pick up on a lot of Mexican things because they are close to the border," she commented. Service says the little meat strips are a common dish in Mexican homes. "Things we consider to be real home cooking all of a sudden catch on," she observed.

Ideally, fajitas are cooked over coals or on a large restaurant grill. In the following recipes, broiling is suggested as an alternative for home cooks. Simulating restaurant presentation, the meat can be brought to the table sizzling hot in a large iron skillet or on an iron pancake griddle.

Marix Tex-Mex Cafe provided guacamole and pico de gallo recipes that can be used with any of the fajitas. The cafe also supplied its formula for fajitas seasoning, a mixture of salt, chili powder, garlic powder, cumin and pepper that adds a lively flavor to the meat.

LA PARRILLA'S FAJITAS

1 to 1 1/4 pounds skirt steak

1 (8-ounce) bottle Italian dressing

4 slices bacon, cut in 1-inch squares

Oil

2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce

1/2 teaspoon garlic salt

2 poblano chiles, cut into strips

1 onion, cut into 1/4-inch slices

5 plum tomatoes, quartered

4 yellow chiles

4 green onions

1/2 small lemon

Marinate steak overnight in dressing. When ready to cook, drain meat and cut into strips. Cook meat with bacon on large griddle or in heavy skillet 4 minutes, sprinkling with small amount of oil. Season with Worcestershire and some of garlic salt while cooking.

Cook poblano chiles and onion alongside meat on griddle or in separate skillet another 4 minutes, sprinkling with oil and remaining garlic salt. Add tomatoes to vegetables and cook about 2 minutes. Place yellow chiles on griddle or in skillet and cook until browned in spots. Dip green onions in oil, place on griddle or in skillet and char lightly. Combine meat and vegetables except green onions on sizzling hot griddle or on heated platter. Arrange green onions over top. Squeeze lemon juice over before serving. Accompany with corn or flour tortillas and salsa. Makes 4 servings.

MARIX FAJITAS

1 cup orange juice

Safflower oil

1/4 cup lime juice

1/4 cup red wine vinegar

1 clove garlic, minced

1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons Marix Fajitas Seasoning or 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1 1/2 pounds skirt steak

1 large onion, sliced

Marix Guacamole

Marix Pico de Gallo

Combine orange juice, 1/2 cup safflower oil, lime juice, vinegar, garlic, fajitas seasoning or salt and pepper and mix well. Place steak in marinade, cover and let stand in refrigerator at least 24 hours. Just before serving, grill onion slices or saute in 2 tablespoons safflower oil in skillet until browned. Drain meat from marinade. Grill over hot coals or broil, 5 inches from heat source, about 7 minutes on each side. Cut meat into strips and mix with onion slices. Serve hot on sizzling griddle. Accompany with guacamole, pico de gallo and 6-inch flour tortillas. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Marix Fajitas Seasoning

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons salt

1 1/2 tablespoons ground black pepper

4 teaspoons New Mexico chili powder

2 1/4 teaspoons garlic powder

2 1/4 teaspoons ground cumin

Combine salt, pepper, chili powder, garlic powder and cumin. Mix well. Store tightly covered. Makes about 1 1/3 cups.

Marix Guacamole

2 avocados

1/4 small onion, chopped

1/2 small tomato, chopped

1 teaspoon chopped cilantro

1 serrano chile, minced

Juice of 1/4 lemon

1/2 teaspoon liquid drained from canned pickled jalapeno chiles

1/2 teaspoon garlic salt

Salt

Mash avocados with potato masher, leaving slightly chunky. Stir in onion, tomato, cilantro, chile, lemon juice, jalapeno liquid and garlic salt. Season to taste with salt. Makes 1 1/2 cups.

Marix Pico de Gallo

1 tomato, diced

1/2 onion, diced

3 serrano chiles, finely chopped

1 tablespoon chopped cilantro

Juice of 1/4 lemon

Salt

1/2 cup water

Combine tomato, onion, chiles, cilantro and lemon juice and season to taste with salt. Add water. Makes about 1 2/3 cups.

ELENA'S ARRECHERA ADOBADA

(Marinated Skirt Steak--1944)

1 pound skirt steak

Salt, pepper

1 clove garlic, minced

1 teaspoon oregano, crumbled

1 tablespoon vinegar

3 tablespoons oil

1 (8-ounce) can tomato sauce

Cut steak into 2-inch squares. Place in shallow baking pan in which it will be broiled. Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste, garlic and oregano. Mix vinegar and oil, pour over steak and let stand 2 hours. Add tomato sauce, then place pan under broiler and broil, about 5 inches from heat source, turning occasionally, about 5 to 7 minutes for rare to medium-rare. Makes 3 to 4 servings.

ELENA'S ARRECHERA ADOBADA

(Marinated Skirt Steak--1958)

Salt, pepper

1 clove garlic, mashed or pressed

1 teaspoon oregano, crumbled

1 tablespoon vinegar

2 tablespoons oil

1 pound skirt steak

Combine salt, pepper, garlic, oregano, vinegar and oil. Coat steak with marinade and let stand 1 hour. Broil over hot coals (or under broiler) 3 to 4 minutes on each side for medium-rare. Brush with marinade before turning. Carve in thin diagonal slices. Makes 3 to 4 servings.

FEDERICO'S FAJITAS

1 1/4 cups soy sauce

1 1/4 cups white vinegar

1 1/4 cups water

1 tablespoon white pepper

1 tablespoon granulated garlic

1 (2 1/2-pound) triangle tip roast

2 tablespoons oil

1/2 pound diced onion

1/2 pound diced green pepper

1 serrano chile, minced

1/2 pound diced tomato

1 lemon wedge

Combine soy sauce, vinegar, water, pepper and garlic. Reserve 2 tablespoons marinade. Place roast in remaining marinade in bowl. Cover and refrigerate at least 12 hours. Drain meat from marinade and grill over hot coals until medium-rare, or place under broiler about 5 inches from heat source and broil about 30 minutes. Cut cooked meat into 1/2-inch dice.

Heat oil in large skillet. Add onion, green pepper and chile and cook until tender-crisp. Add tomato and meat and cook, stirring as needed, just until heated through. Tomato should remain firm. Serve mixture on sizzling hot griddle or in skillet. Pour reserved marinade, then squeeze lemon wedge over mixture at table. Accompany with guacamole, salsa, sour cream, shredded Cheddar cheese, shredded lettuce, flour tortillas, refried beans and Mexican rice. Makes 6 servings.

ANN'S FAVORITE FAJITAS

1 cup soy sauce

1/4 cup light brown sugar, packed

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1/4 teaspoon garlic powder

1/4 teaspoon onion powder

1 skirt steak, about 1 pound

Warm flour tortillas

Combine soy sauce, brown sugar, lemon juice, ginger, garlic powder and onion powder in jar with lid. Shake to mix well and dissolve sugar. Let marinade stand in sealed jar overnight. Pour marinade over steak and let stand 2 hours or overnight in refrigerator in sealed container.

Remove steak from marinade and grill over very hot coals about 10 minutes for 3/4-inch-thick steak. Brush meat with marinade 2 or 3 times while cooking. Chop meat with cleaver and serve wrapped in warm flour tortillas. Makes about 1 1/4 cups marinade and 3 to 4 servings meat.

GEORGE BRAKE'S

CORPUS CHRISTI FAJITAS

1 flank steak, about 1 pound

1/2 cup olive oil

1/2 cup beer

1/4 cup tequila

2 tablespoons liquid drained from canned pickled jalapeno chiles

1 pickled jalapeno chile, seeded and minced, optional

2 to 3 medium cloves garlic, minced

2 tablespoons cilantro leaves, or to taste

Juice of 1 lime

Salt, pepper

Trim all fat from steak. Cut steak into 1/4-inch slices, cutting across grain and slightly on diagonal. Combine olive oil, beer, tequila, jalapeno liquid, jalapeno chile, garlic, cilantro and lime juice and season to taste with salt and pepper. Place steak slices in marinade, cover and allow to stand 2 to 3 hours or overnight in refrigerator. Grill over coals or under broiler until medium to medium-well done. Serve in flour tortillas, adding guacamole and salsa. Makes 4 servings.

MACAYO'S FAJITAS

Juice of 6 limes

2 tablespoons granulated garlic

1/2 teaspoon soy sauce

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 pounds skirt or flank steak or 2 pounds boneless chicken breasts

2 (4-ounce) can whole green chiles, cut into strips

1/2 cup chopped onion

2 tablespoons oil

Combine lime juice, garlic, soy sauce and salt. Cut steak into strips and marinate in mixture 1 hour. If using chicken, cut into strips and dip into marinade just before cooking. Do not allow chicken to stand in marinade. Saute beef or chicken with chile strips and onion in oil in large skillet. Divide into batches if necessary to avoid overcrowding skillet. Serve sizzling hot in skillet. Accompany with sour cream, salsa, guacamole, refried beans and tortillas, if desired. Makes 6 servings.

PAM GILLESPIE'S FAJITAS

1 pound skirt steak

1/4 teaspoon garlic powder

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1 tablespoon prepared mustard

1/3 cup bottled Italian dressing

1/4 cup bottled teriyaki sauce

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

2 tablespoons brown sugar, packed

Bottled tomato-based barbecue sauce

Trim fat from steak. Sprinkle steak with garlic powder and pepper. Coat with mustard. Combine Italian dressing, teriyaki sauce, vinegar and brown sugar. Mix well. Pour mixture over meat and marinate overnight or at least 10 hours, turning occasionally. Remove meat from marinade and grill over medium coals until medium-rare. During last 10 minutes, coat with barbecue sauce. Cook until crusty. Slice very thin against grain. Serve with flour tortillas, salsa, guacamole, chopped tomato, onion and other condiments as wanted. Makes 4 servings.

FAJITAS ENCHILADAS

WITH FOUR-PEPPER MOUSSE

1/4 cup salted roasted almonds

2 tablespoons currants

1/2 cup chopped green onions

1/3 cup canned chopped green chiles

1 cup farmer cheese, finely crumbled

1 teaspoon black pepper

1 teaspoon seasoned salt

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 cup cooked diced Fajitas (1/4-inch dice)

Four-Pepper Mousse

Oil

24 corn tortillas

Finely shredded white Cheddar cheese

Place almonds, currants, green onions and chiles in food processor and process until almonds are evenly chopped. Turn into bowl. Add farmer cheese, pepper, salt and cinnamon. Add Fajitas and stir until evenly mixed. Set aside. Prepare Four-Pepper Mousse.

In small skillet, heat oil 1 inch deep to 360 degrees. Place tortillas, 1 at a time, in oil until softened, turning once. Drain on paper towels. Allow 3 tortillas for each stack. Spread 2 tortillas with Fajitas stuffing. Stack on top of each other. Cover with third tortilla. Cover top of stack with about 1/4 cup Four-Pepper Mousse. Repeat with remaining tortillas, making 8 stacks. Sprinkle Cheddar cheese over top. Bake at 450 degrees until cheese is melted. Makes 8 main course servings, or cut into eighths and serve as appetizers.

Fajitas

1 pound skirt steak

1 (7-ounce) can Mexican green hot sauce

1/2 (8-ounce) bottle Italian dressing

1/4 cup soy sauce

1 teaspoon sugar

Trim all fat and membranes from steak. Combine green chile sauce, Italian dressing, soy sauce and sugar. Marinate steak in mixture 4 hours. Drain meat from marinade and grill over oak or mesquite to desired doneness. For use in enchiladas, steak should be medium to well done. Cut enough steak in 1/4-inch dice to measure 1 cup for enchilada filling.

Four-Pepper Mousse

6 dried New Mexico chiles

2 teaspoons butter

2 sweet red peppers, cut into 1/4-inch dice

4 to 6 serrano chiles, seeded, deveined and finely chopped

1 large jalapeno chile, seeded, deveined and finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

10 to 15 cilantro leaves

2 teaspoons chili powder

1/2 teaspoon oregano

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1 1/2 teaspoons cocoa powder

1 1/2 tablespoons white vinegar

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

2 teaspoons seasoned salt

1/2 cup whipping cream

Place New Mexico chiles in saucepan. Cover with water. Bring to boil and boil 5 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand 20 minutes. Drain chiles, scrape pulp from peel and place pulp in food processor container.

Heat butter in medium skillet. Add sweet red peppers, serrano and jalapeno chiles and garlic and saute over very low heat, covered, 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent burning. Add sauteed mixture, cilantro, chili powder, oregano, cumin, cocoa, vinegar, cayenne and seasoned salt to food processor container. Process to make smooth puree. Beat cream until stiff. Fold puree gently but thoroughly into whipped cream. Makes about 2 1/3 cups.

LAS CASUELAS TERRAZA

CHICKEN FAJITAS

4 chicken breast halves

1 lemon, quartered

1 onion, quartered

Pepper

1/4 cup orange juice

2 tablespoons reserved broth

1 1/2 tablespoons chili powder

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1/2 teaspoon oregano, crushed

Salt

2 tablespoons oil

Place chicken in large saucepan and cover with water. Add lemon, onion and season to taste with pepper. Bring to boil, reduce heat and simmer, covered, 30 to 40 minutes, until chicken is tender. Drain chicken breasts, reserving 2 tablespoons broth, and cool sufficiently to handle. Cut chicken in finger-length strips about 1 inch wide.

Make paste by combining orange juice, broth, chili powder, garlic powder and oregano. Season to taste with salt. Spread paste on chicken pieces and marinate in refrigerator at least 2 hours. When ready to serve, heat oil in skillet. Add chicken pieces and cook about 5 minutes, or until heated through, turning as needed. Makes 4 servings.

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