In the days of the Old West, cowboys/vaqueros were often given the less valuable head, entrails and other trimmings as part of their pay when one of the cows/steers was slaughtered. The vaqueros would throw some of that meat straight onto the fire. Many of the authentic Mexican dishes we know today come from that period, such as Menudo (spicy tripe stew), Barbacoa de Cabeza (BBQ’ed cow head) and fajitas/arracheras (grilled skirt steak). The first person to commercially make fajitas in 1969 was a guy named Sonny Falcon from Austin who operated a fajita taco stand in Kyle, TX near Texas A&M University. Later on, others also added fajitas/tacos al carbon to their restaurant menus, but all fajitas come from a long history of families who, for generations made fajitas/arracheras at home.
In 1973 in Houston, a restaurateur by the name of Ninfa “Mama”Laurenzo whom I was lucky enough to meet at her original restaurant, Ninfa’s at 2704 Navigation Blvd in the second ward just east of I-69, was responsible for launching the fajita craze around the world. Former presidents, movie stars, and rock bands have all eaten at the original site. The Laurenzo family still operates dozens of restaurants to this day. The dish has evolved over the years and even though they kept the lid on how they are made (or use gentle misinformation), I will give you what I think is the closest version of a true Houston Style Fajitas-the original Arracheras!
First let’s talk about the beef. The outside skirt is in very high demand and can be very difficult to find in many areas. Outside skirt is the original cut and is attached to the chest wall, running diagonally from the 6th to the 12th rib. Moreover the outside skirt steak is from the plate section (best beef ribs for BBQ btw), below the rib and between the brisket and flank, and usually comes with the membrane still attached, which needs to be trimmed before cooking. Inside skirt comes from the flank—it’s narrower and thinner than the outside skirt, and mostly comes with the membrane removed. This steak runs inside the body wall and is the muscle that moves the diaphragm. You can use the inside skirt if you need to, but it’s not the cut that make the dish famous. Most of the time the silver skin in both cuts have been removed, but if the butcher in your area neglected to trim this out, you will need to do so in either cut prior to tenderizing. Silver skin (epimysium) is a thin membrane of elastin, wrapping connective tissue such as the fascia, those bands of of white fat and collagen delineating cuts of meat. Think of silver skin as meat’s girdle or spanx- helping to lift and separate muscle groups so they can easily slide past each other.
If you are lucky enough to find a source that has already tenderized this for you, great. Otherwise, you should spend the time to do this yourself. I prefer to do this on a thick cutting board with the meat broken down into a reasonable working size, sandwiched between two pieces of plastic wrap. This helps prevent blood spattering or chunks of meat flying around your kitchen. I have found an online source that has the outside skirt, for a good price and inexpensive delivery as well at US Wellness Meats.
Forty years ago, the outside skirt was tenderized and marinated overnight often with pineapple juice, orange zest, lime zest, soy sauce, sherry vinegar, garlic and chiles to help make the steak tender. Today, in the interest of time and consistency, a pre-tenderized skirt steak is used with Salsa Negra and dried spices. I have to admit that I like this version better over the original marinade method. It’s quick, easy and efficient. From a commercial kitchen perspective I can understand the switch from a marinade to a salsa. In busy kitchens, cooks could occasionally forget to take the skirt steak out of the marinade before becoming over-saturated or cooked in the sherry vinegar solution. The Salsa Negra eliminates this potential since it is applied at the moment you decide to cook the skirt steak.
The Salsa Negra is incredibly easy to make and is not only good on the beef fajita, but is also fantastic on skewered (peeled and de-veined) jumbo shrimp, semi-boneless grilled quail, chicken, duck or even properly cleaned octopus or squid . I would suggest that you make the Salsa Negra the day before you need it, to let the flavors blend and develop.
I set my propane grill close to high, which does a fine job of searing in those good char marks. If you want to go super authentic, a bed of coals made from mesquite wood is the most authentic and traditional way to go. Mesquite burns very hot which makes it the perfect wood for quick grilling fajitas, boneless chicken breast, shrimp and more.
Not to confuse you, since I love fajitas, I’m using both outside and inside skirt steak cuts in the images below. They are prepared identically.
Beverage Pairings: This meal is what cold beer, Michelada, Margaritas or chilled shots of Tequila where made for. My two favorite beers for fajitas are Shiner Bock and Dos Equis Amber. My current favorite Tequila is Esperanto Seleccion Anejo served chilled in a shot glasses.
Houston Style Fajitas-the original Arracheras!
- 1-2 lbs Skirt steak, outside trimmed of silver skin and tenderized (Inside skirt can be substituted)
- 1/2 cup Salsa Negra (Please see recipe in this blog)
- 2 tbsp Southwest Seasoning (Please see recipe in this blog)
- 1-2 whole Jalapeno grilled (optional)
- 1-2 whole Tomato, fresh halved and grilled (optional)
- 1 cup Cheese, Oaxaca shredded (shredded sharp cheddar cheese is great as well)
- 1 cup Guacamole (Please see recipe in this blog)
- 1/2 cup Sour cream (Mexican crema, French Crème Fraîche)
- 1/2 cup Green Sauce (Please see recipe in this blog)
- 1/2 cup Pico de gallo
- 1/2 cup Cilantro/Onion mix (optional) mince and mix with a squirt of lime juice
- 4 12" Tortillas, Warm flour (traditional) or corn
Pepper and Onions for Fajitas
- 2 tbsp oil, vegetable
- 2 whole pepper, green or red or combination bell pepper stemmed, cored and sliced thin
- 1 whole onions, peeled, cored and sliced thin Use Yellow, White or Red onion
- 2 whole garlic, minced
- 1 tsp southwest seasoning (Please see recipe in this blog)
- 1 tsp sherry vinegar
- 2 tsp lime, juice
Preparing the Skirt Steak
Preheat propane grill or start fire with Mesquite wood/charcoal in Weber type outdoor grill
Clean silver skin (if any) off the skirt steak.
Place the skirt steak between two pieces of plastic wrap to prevent splattering
Tenderize skirt steak with a meat mallet or heavy wooden rolling pin - I've even used a large unopened soup can or heavy iron skillet in a pinch.
On a large oven sheet pan spread the Salsa Negra over one side of the skirt steak. Season liberally with Southwest Seasoning. Reserve
Preparing Peppers and Onions
Core and seed the peppers and slice thin lengthwise.
Peel and core a whole onion. Slice in half and then slice thinly lengthwise.
Use a saute or fry pan over medium high heat add the vegetable oil and bring up to temperature. Add the sliced onions and sliced peppers and saute until tender. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant 1-2 minutes. Add the southwest seasoning mix and toss to coat the vegetables well. Deglaze with the sherry wine and cook for another minute. Turn off the heat and cover with a lid or aluminum foil to keep warm. Reserve. (Before you serve squeeze the fresh lime juice on top)
Grilling the Skirt Steak
Prepare a gas grill by turning on high or Mesquite charcoal grill. In the case of using Mesquite start the fire and allow the a nice bed of hot coals to form.
Over a hot grill carefully place the skirt steak with the Salsa Negra over the hot coals or grill. Promptly cover the other side of the skirt steak with more Salsa Negra using a basting brush. Apply more Southwest Seasoning.
Cook the skirt steak until good char marks show. The meat should be sizzling hot through the process. On my grill it takes about 3-4 minutes per side. This is a thin cut of meat, be mindful of over cooking.
Once both sides are cooked remove from the heat and let rest on a cutting board for 2-3 minutes before slicing.
Cut the skirt steak down to workable portions about 4 inches long. Turn and slice against the grain to insure tenderness.
Serve immediately over the cooked onions and peppers on a pre-warmed platter or dish.
Serve with the condiments you desire. Serve the fajitas with one or all of the following: green sauce, pico di gallo, onions and peppers, fresh grilled tomato and jalapeño, shredded Oaxaca or sharp cheddar cheese, guacamole, sour cream, finely minced onions mixed with cilantro, thinly sliced radish or pickled Nopales, wedges of lime and warm flour or corn tortillas.