The Fajita King


On rare occasions during my childhood, my family ventured to "Los Amigos," the one and only Mexican restaurant in our town. For a Mexican restaurant located in the Montana Rockies, at least 1,000 miles from the Mexican border, it wasn't too bad. It was always cool inside and a little damp. The smooth red pottery walls and the almost overwhelming green foliage made it seem exotic.

Usually, I ordered the super-sized burrito with chicken and guacamole. It was almost the size of my leg (at least my leg at the time) and usually ended up in a doggie bag for the trip home. Sometimes, my dad would set our budget higher, and I could order my absolute favorite Mexican food item: fajitas.

The fajitas always called to me as servers placced them on the table of lucky patrons. I listened to the fajitas sizzle from the kitchen all the way to the table as the veggies continued sauteing in the small cast iron pan with a side of foil-wrapped tortillas.

"Hot Plate!" the waiter shouted, as I always instinctively wanted to grab the plate from him. There was something gratifying about being able to make my own personal little tortillas, stuffed with chicken, onions and peppers, caramelized in their grilling sauce. The toppings were fun, too: guacamole and salsa, lettuce, a little cheese. I always ate until I was stuffed.

When my dad set our budget too low for us to go out at all, we had fajita night at home. Made with our farm-raised beef, homemade wheat tortillas and garden tomatoes, they were definitely healthier than their Mexican restaurant counterparts. And when we ate them at home, my mom was always on hand to ensure that we all had a healthy pile of lettuce on our plates.

Once, while my family was headed across Texas in a caravan of cars, my brother totaled his brand new Ford pickup. Late that night, an ambulance ride and a neck brace later, we all sat at a Mexican restaurant and solemnly ordered dinner. I ordered fajitas because they were familiar, and I was hungry, in spite of the fact that my brother looked like a mummy.

While I was enjoying my fajitas and hating Texas for being big, dusty and dangerous, I didn't realize that it was the virtual birthplace of my favorite food. In West Mexico in the 1930s, ranch workers were given the least desirable parts of a butchered steer as partial payment of their wages. One specific cut of this meat, from near the diaphragm of the steer, is long and narrow, like a belt. The Spanish translation of the English word "belt" is faja, which later became fajita.

As the fajita spread throughout the state, many capitalized on its growing popularity. Sonny Falcon, the meat market manager of Guajardo's Cash Grocery, grilled fajitas in his backyard for his neighbors until they became too popular, and he had to move the production to a fajita concession stand. In 1982, Chef George Weidmann of the Hyatt Regency in Austin, Texas, recognized the commercial potential of the dish and added it to the menu of the Hyatt's La Vista restaurant. Soon, the sales of "sizzling fajitas" made La Vista the most profitable restaurant in the Hyatt chain. Today, every Mexican restaurant worth its chili pepper has some form of fajitas on their menu.

After I moved to Jackson, my Mexican food intake sank to an all-time low. The closest thing I had to Mexican was a stale tortilla chip from my school cafeteria. I didn't get back into it until my tennis-playing husband (who was my boyfriend at the time) insisted on eating fajitas before a big match. He swore they were good luck. I swore I was going to get fat after tournament weekends.

Since then, we've made fajitas at home a few times. We usually use chicken, since I don't eat beef, and shrimp is too expensive. I always let him handle the meat while I try to perfect the art of the fajita marinade. Even after I've applied just the right number of lime squirts and chili powder flakes, he's sneaking in splashes of Worcestershire sauce. Somehow, in the end we have a meal we can both enjoy: him adding hot sauce and cheese, me adding lettuce (thanks, mom).

That's the fun part about fajitas. Because so many different things come together to make them good, you can sneak in your own little garnishes and flavors. This recipe is a guideline; add or subtract as you like, but be sure to add a margarita.

1 1/2 pounds steak, chicken breast, or shrimp
1 green or red bell pepper, cored, seeded and
thinly sliced
1 small onion, thinly sliced
3 tomatoes, chopped
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp chili powder
1 garlic clove, diced
1/4 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
Juice from 1 lime

Garnishes for fajitas can include:
Shredded cheese
Sour cream
Guacamole or sliced avocado
Shredded lettuce
Fresh cilantro

1. Heat vegetable oil in large skillet.
2. Mix together vinegar, spices and lime juice.
3. Add meat to skillet; cook thoroughly.
4. As meat is cooking, add small amounts of vinegar mixture to pan.
5. Add green pepper, onion and tomatoes to skillet; cover and let steam for five to eight minutes, or until the peppers have softened.

To prepare the tortillas, layer tortillas and paper towels on a microwave safe plate. Microwave for about 45 seconds, or until the tortillas are soft and warm. To prepare a fajita, put meat and vegetable mixture on a tortilla. Add desired garnishes and roll up like a burrito.


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