Fajitas. A Brief History... and Mama Ninfa's Original Recipe to Make Beef Fajitas (2024)

Fajitas. A Brief History... and Mama Ninfa's Original Recipe to Make Beef Fajitas (2)
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 fewof the frequent misconceptions about what fajitas are out of the way immediately.

The word “faja” comes from the Spanish word for “belt.” Theword “fajita” means “little belt” in Spanish. Fajitas are a dish with roots inthe 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 skirtsteak is a strip around 18 inches long and about ¾ to one-inch thick – and itis in the beef carcass beneath the heart and lungs, so fajita (little belt) isan 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 (slightly tougher and needs marinade to tenderize it) and the two inside skirts are the secondary flank musclefrom the hindquarter (and these need the marinade only for flavor).

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 assirloin, 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 Valleyof Texas since the cattle drives in the 1930’s, where animals were butcheredand the Mexican cowboys (Vaqueros) were given the strip steaks as throw-awaycuts of meat (dumb gringos!). There are many stories of the history of fajitas and many claimsto being the first to sell fajitas to us gringos. Fajitas appear to have madethe leap from cattle drive campfire and backyard grill obscurity to commercialsales in 1969. Sonny Falcon, an Austin meat market manager, operated the firstcommercial fajita taco stand (his Fajitas were unseasoned and unmarinated) stand at a rural Dies Y Seis celebration in alittle Texas town of Kyle in September of 1969. However, what most people knowas 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 inTex-Mex restaurants all over Texas. They soon became a staple in Mexican andTex-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, orgrilled 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 thisone, but other than her sons and grandsons (in the restaurant business inHouston) 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 familytalked about the recipe, ALL mentioned how important pineapple juice was in themix 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 thewater, the pineapple juice, lemon juice, soy sauce, garlic, blackpepper 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 fromthe meat. In most supermarkets, this membrane will already have been removed. If the meat is thicker than 3/4" thick at the thickest part, cutit in half horizontally (butterfly) so that it will cook evenly. Place theskirt steak in the marinade and turn to coat. Cover the dish with plastic wrapand 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.

Fajitas. A Brief History... and Mama Ninfa's Original Recipe to Make Beef Fajitas (2024)


What is the history of Ninfas fajitas? ›

The Original Ninfa's was started by Ninfa Rodríguez Laurenzo, a Mexican-American woman, in a tortilla factory. Ninfa Laurenzo became a full-time restaurateur and the tortilla factory closed. Mama Ninfa is widely credited with popularizing the fajita among Houstonians.

What is the history of fajitas? ›

The history of fajitas can be traced back to the cattle ranches of West Texas and Northern Mexico, where ranchers would use the tougher cuts of meat, such as skirt steak, directly over an open flame. This practice, known as “barbacoa,” was popular among Mexican cowboys, also known as vaqueros.

How bad are fajitas? ›

Even a seemingly healthful order of grilled chicken fajitas with the standard accompaniments can top 1,500 calories, 150 grams of carbs and 1,600 mg sodium.

Who brought fajitas to Texas? ›

The fajita is believed to have originated in the ranch lands of West Texas and Northern Mexico. Cattle ranchers would often be given the less desirable parts of the beef, such as the skirt steak, as part of their payment. The ranchers would cook the meat over an open fire, creating a delicious and tender dish.

Did Mama Ninfa invent fajitas? ›

Mama Ninfa started something

The dish she created was tacos al carbon, which the whole world would eventually come to know as fajitas, the bedrock of Tex-Mex cuisine.

Who owns the original Ninfa's? ›

The family's company filed for bankruptcy in 1996, and Austin-based Serrano's Cafe acquired Ninfa's a year later. In 2005, the flagship Ninfa's on Navigation location was purchased by Legacy Restaurants, and executive chef Alex Padilla has built on Mama's recipes ever since.

When did fajitas originate? ›

The first culinary evidence of the fajitas with the cut of meat, the cooking style (directly on a campfire or on a grill), and the Spanish nickname goes back as far as the 1930s in the ranch lands of South and West Texas.

Are fajitas originally from Mexico? ›

Flautas are a type of Mexican food made by rolling a filling, typically shredded chicken or beef, inside a small flour or corn tortilla. The filled tortilla is then deep-fried until it is crispy and golden brown.

How old are fajitas? ›

Fajitas were initially created at the end of the 1930s and beginning of the 1940s by Mexican ranch workers that were located in Texas. There were instances where the workers were paid with meat, which consisted of the least wanted parts like the head, entrails together with skirt steak.

What is the most unhealthy Mexican food? ›

Worst: Chimichanga

This is code for “deep-fried burrito.” Think that sounds unhealthy? You're right. The dish has more than 1,500 calories and 93 grams of fat. Factor in toppings like guacamole and sour cream, and you'll get most of your day's calories and sodium in one meal.

Do you eat fajitas hot or cold? ›

I love that this recipe can be served hot or cold. I prefer the recipe hot, while my husband prefers it cold. We sometimes eat these just as is or even wrap them up in homemade tortillas or lettuce for a tasty spin! Fajita Bowls are a great 21 day fix meal, made with all approved ingredients.

Can you eat leftover fajitas? ›

Now we eat leftover chicken fajitas. I remove the chicken from the bone, shred it, add some sautéed vegetables, salsa and spices and dump it into a wrap with avocado. For some extra flavor I add some mayo to the wrap.

Who invented fajita? ›

The history of fajitas, while somewhat blurred, belongs to the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas and northern Mexico, where skirt steak was often used as payment to vaqueros (Spanish for “cowboys”). The vaqueros soon became adept at marinating the steak and devouring its various, tasty forms.

Who is the king of fajitas? ›

At least as served in a modest Travis Heights East ranch home by the “Fajita King,” Juan Antonio “Sonny” Falcón, 81, who is credited with introducing the fajita to the general public in 1969 at a Diez y Seis celebration in Kyle, and his proud son, John Falcón.

What Mexican food was invented in Texas? ›

Fajitas were invented in the USA by Mexicans that were working on ranches in Texas. This was in the 1940s. Fajitas can be considered part of the genre of Mexican cuisine, but known more as Tex-Mex, or northern Mexican cuisine.

Where did ninfas originate? ›

HOUSTON, Texas -- When Maria "Ninfa" Laurenzo first opened a taco shop in Houston's East End neighborhood in 1973, she was a widow with five children and her tortilla factory was failing. It started as a side business to earn some extra cash, but she never imagined it would become a Tex-Mex culinary empire.

Where was the fajita first created? ›

Fajitas have grown from obscure, South Texas roots to become a beloved mainstay of Mexican cooking. The history of fajitas, while somewhat blurred, belongs to the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas and northern Mexico, where skirt steak was often used as payment to vaqueros (Spanish for “cowboys”).

What was the first restaurant to serve fajitas? ›

In September 1969, Sonny Falcón, an Austin meat market manager, operated the first commercial fajita taco concession stand at a rural 16 de septiembre celebration in Kyle, Texas. During that same year, Otilia Garza introduced fajitas at the Round-Up Restaurant in Pharr, Texas.

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