Y’all know I grew up in Texas, and even though I’ve lived in the Bay Area (and now Sonoma County) for well over two decades and consider myself a Californian, you can take the woman outta Texas, but, well, Texas has a way of sticking with you whether you like it or not. There’s a lot of things I do not miss about Texas (intense heat and humidity, large flying insects, loony politics), but there are so many things that I pine for (the food, the Southern hospitality, swimming in natural waters).
While I’ve yet to find a swimming hole that rivals Barton Springs (Austin) or Balmorhea (outside Marfa), I am fortunately able to re-create some of my favorite childhood foods…most of which fall into the Tex-Mex or barbecue camps.
One of my family’s favorite restaurants was a place called Ninfa’s, where the chips were thin, crisp and warm, and always served with the most amazing red salsa and green sauce. But it was the Tacos al Carbon—grilled marinated skirt steak stuffed into flour tortillas—that made Mama Ninfa Laurenzo famous when she opened her original restaurant in Houston in 1973. The tacos were a hit, and she started marketing them as “fajitas.” While there is a long history of fajitas, likely dating back to the vaqueros of the Rio Grande Valley in the 1930s, they didn’t hit mainstream restaurants until the 1980s, quite possibly due to the popularity of Mama Ninfa’s fajitas.
These days, fajitas are ubiquitous and synonymous with what many folks think of as Tex-Mex. They come in all different guises—from the original (and what some, including Mama Ninfa, consider the only true fajitas) skirt steak to other cuts of beef, chicken, and even shrimp.
I love skirt steak fajitas, but I’m also a big fan of the chicken version (Mama Ninfa would surely vehemently disagree). I make mine with boneless breasts, highly seasoned with a chile-based rub, then seared or grilled with plenty of sweet bell peppers and onions. Once sliced and stuffed into flour tortillas (flour! never ever corn), you can then add all the delicious toppings you want—the classics include salsa or pico de gallo, shredded cheese, guacamole, and sour cream.
Recipe: Grilled Chicken Fajitas
Makes about 6 servings
- 2 lbs boneless, skinless chicken breasts, trimmed of fat and gristle
- 2 tsp chili powder
- 1 tsp sweet paprika
- 1 tsp cumin
- 1/2 tsp Mexican oregano
- 1 tsp kosher salt, plus more as needed
- 3 tbsp olive oil
- 1 large red bell pepper, cored, seeded, and cut into strips
- 1 medium yellow onion, peeled, halved, and thinly sliced
- Your favorite salsa or pico de gallo
- Your favorite guacamole
- Shredded Monterey jack cheese
- Shredded romaine or iceburg lettuce (optional)
- Sour cream
- 1 or 2 limes, each cut into 8 pieces
- Flour tortillas, warmed
- Cut each chicken breast in half so that the pieces are all uniform in size and thickness. In a bowl, mix together the chili powder, paprika, cumin, oregano, and salt. Add the chicken pieces, 2 tbsp olive oil, and toss to coat. Cover and refrigerate for up to 8 hours (or you can proceed right away).
- Set up a gas or charcoal grill for medium-high heat. Put all the extras out on the table in bowls (salsa, guacamole, shredded cheese, lettuce, and warm tortillas wrapped in foil or a kitchen towel) so that you are ready when the meat is finished cooking.
- Toss the pepper and onions with 1 tbsp olive oil and season with salt. Place a grill pan over the heat and add the pepper and onions. Add the chicken alongside the pan and cook, turning the chicken and stirring the vegetables, until the vegetables are charred and tender and the chicken is nicely grill-marked and cooked throughout. Remove from the heat and transfer the vegetables to a platter and the chicken to a cutting board.
- Slice the chicken into thin pieces across the grain. Transfer to the platter with the vegetables. Serve at once, building your fajitas as you like!