Tuesday, July 20, 2010

nearly authentic

Just about everyone is familiar with the near ubiquitous fajitas- marinated strips of meat that are grilled and, in most restaurants served on a hot iron platter with onions and peppers. I'd imagine that most folks even know, or can easily enough discover, that "fajitas" (Spanish for "little belts") originally referred marinated and grilled skirt steak, which was thinly sliced across the grain to make the tough meat easier to eat. That dish- marinated and grilled skirt steak, probably originated in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

Down there, fajitas were served on a plate with beans, rice, perhaps guacamole or pico de gallo, and with tortillas for wrapping it all up. Since skirt steak was cheap, it was good party food. However, there were no iron platters, no bell peppers, no shrimp fajitas (takes a fine hand to get those off the carcass), and no chicken fajitas.

The best way of serving fajitas also started down in the Valley, in the form of the "botaña platter". Botaña is Spanish for "snack" and in many Mexican or Tex-Mex restaurants ordering a botaña platter would get you a selection of appetizers. In Pharr, a restaurant called the Round-Up started serving tostadas (fried tortilla chips) covered with refried beans and cheese, then topped with fajitas, guacamole, chopped lettuce, onion and pico de gallo. When visiting my grandparents back in the 70's, we'd go by there and order one or, if enough folks were together, two, as a botaña platter is served communally. A good botana platter is crispy chips, smoky, chewy meat, hearty creamy beans, rich guacamole, spicy and tart pico de gallo with crunchy lettuce and onions- just about everything good in that style of food, all at once. The lady that started the Round-Up came up with the dish and you can still find good examples of it down there. If you're ever in the area, I highly recommend trying one. Alas, for all the many virtues of New Mexican food, it does not include a botaña platter. Homemade is the only option.

Personally, I'm not fond of the cast iron platter fajita variant. I never order it in restaurants anymore because most the time they use some cut other than skirt steak, the marinades tend to be overpowering, the onions greasy and the peppers overcooked. That's not even mentioning the lack of refried beans and the unlikelihood of getting decent pico de gallo. In addition to those many sins, it isn't what I grew up eating.

Though I am disdainful of the more recent incarnation of fajitas, I do not hold that attitude with any sort of pretense to authenticity in my own cooking. This is because I myself stray from the true path of (beef) skirt steak. Dressing out an elk or a deer, you get meat on the front shoulders that you can take off in big flat sheets and which features long muscle fibers (and a lot of silverskin). Too thin to cook as brisket (unless you get a really big elk), I noticed a long time ago that it resembled fajita meat. Rather than grind it or cut it up for stew meat, I like to remove most of the tough connective tissue (but don't get worried about getting it all) and leave the meat in fairly large pieces. Then, every so often, I'll get hungry for something close to the real thing, fajita wise, and marinate some of that meat in some (cheap) tequila along with lime juice, a little oil, garlic, oregano, salt and pepper. Then I'll grill it quick of a hot fire and slice it across the grain. It's a good way to get a little Tex-Mex flavor.

Of course, if you're going to go to the trouble of marinating and all, you might as well go the whole nine yards. Here's one version: first, before putting the meat on the fire, fry up some fresh tostadas, as they taste so much better than anything out of a bag.

That, and have some beans on hand to cook into refritos.

A little cheese:

Into the oven:

Once hot, add the (also hot but not put into the oven so you don't lose too much moisture) meat:

Chopped fresh or pickled jalapenos, guacamole, chopped onion (no pico de gallo- in foodie-speak the pico was "deconstructed"), some lettuce and you're just about done.

This botana platter is made with oryx and really ought to be layered a bit higher. However, since it was only for two, we left it low.

No cast iron platters in sight.


Trout Caviar said...

You have just made me seriously hungry, with your descriptions and photos, both. Great report.


Scampwalker said...

That sounds terrific, and just like the stuff we'd get in the greasy spoons around San Antonio when I went to school.

Is that a white wine paired with it? I much prefer a cold Negro Modelo, but to each his own!

mdmnm said...

Brett- Thanks!

Scampwalker- San Antonio's right up at the northern limit of where I'd expect to get a good fajita platter. That is a white wine (three buck Chuck), with ice! A cold Negra Modelo, Dos Equis or a margarita would probably be more appropriate, but sometimes you go with what you got.

Mike Spies said...

Jesus - right before my evening meal and you made the hunger peak. Nw I am jonesing for some Mexican food.. TexMex, real Mex, nearly anyMex.