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Fajitas Find their Roots in the Rio Grande Valley

Fajitas were born in the Rio Grande Valley' granddaddy cook off still going strong

Some say the fajita itself was sold for the very first time in a Rio Grande Valley restaurant at the now-defunct Roundup on Old Highway 83 in Pharr. Families poured into the Roundup in droves those days decades ago, to get a taste of their butter flied, marinated skirt steak a once-unwanted cut of beef that that would soon steal the world''s heart.
 'Like Buffalo Wings and egg rolls, fajitas are now world cuisine, found in restaurants from Japan to Belgium.

IT ALL STARTED HERE
The Fajita Cook-Off the grand daddy of South Texas fajita cook-offs was the first competition that put the region''s fajita barbecue masters in a head to head culinary confrontation. The cook-off started out in Edinburg some 30 years ago, and has drifted from town to town ever in pursuit of a bigger and better location.
 'This year, that famous cook off which paved the way for hundreds of similar competitions throughout the country, from Arizona to New York has found some renewed energy, setting up in McAllen at the Civic Center on 10th Street.
 'Big musical acts like New Kids on the Block and Selena are no longer needed to pay the bills' entrance is now free, and it''s still people''s signature sauces and marinades that separate winner from loser in the intensely competitive cooking divisions.
 'Competition is fierce at the Cook Off, and that''s no clich�. There''s some real cowboys there, and vaqueros too, plus more than enough weekend barbeque warriors to send a strict vegetarian to the nut house.
 'Some 30 contestants signed up for competition in this week''s event the original fajita a cultural keepsake that would inspire a frenzy of local variations, with more and more, year after year, sprouting up in just about every Rio Grande Valley town and city.
 'But competition has moved far beyond just fajitas. This year, there''s pan de campo cowboy bread baked in rustic Dutch ovens heated by burning mesquite embers.
 'There''s cabrito, too young goat flayed out in wood oven-contraptions that slow-cook the cabrito until it''s so soft it can hardly hold together.
 'And there''s a gourmet fajita divisions, which inspires contestants to sometimes create huge, flowering plate presentations that look more appropriate for a Christmas Day parade than a cook off.
 '
CALLING ALL COOKS
Fred Rodriguez, Roberts Chevrolet Company''s Sales Manager, is one of the hundreds of cooks at this year''s event. He''s friendly 'when talking about his days hosting the South Texas Sportsman hunting and fishing show. But he turns to ice when asked about the ingredients in his fajita marinade.
 '“'I don''t give away recipes,”' he says in a way that suggests the conversation is over.
 '“'Why don''t you go talk to him,”' he says, pointing to a gaunt man tending a wood-fueled oven with a “'cabrito”' or baby goat, cooking inside.
 'That''s Kip Roberts, alias “'the Cabrito Kid,”' He wears a straw hat, silver glasses and the grim smile of a gunslinger. Kip will tell you anything you need to know about the way he''s cooking cabrito because there''s no recipe to make it a trick. It''s the expert application of hot coals on the iron bed that rests above his 14 year-old plywood box of an oven, a cabrito-cooking relic made for him by a friend.
 'For Kip, cooking cabrito is a quest one that''s taken him far from the showroom of Roberts Chevrolet, where he serves as General Manager.
 'His 17-year cabrito odyssey has taken him to Saltillo, Monterrey, and the brush country north of Edinburg, where he forged a bond with Enrique Guerra, another student of the goat. Now others seek him out' contracting with him on the cabrito circuit, to select the right cabrito, and prepare it at giant gatherings like the McAllen Hunter''s Expo, or when they need a ringer for regional competition.
 'I ask about Kip''s sauce not too hot, not too sweet that finishes off his cabrito.
 '“'Burnt orange”' he begins. “'Peppers from some people I stay with in Chihuahua.”' Then …' his voice trails off to nothing.

WHAT''S IN THE SAUCE
Looking for more insight into the ingredients that make great cook off recipes, The Paper speaks with The Tejano Cookers, 'a happy-go-lucky bunch who look like the studio Fajita team from Hollywood. Wearing pressed monogrammed shirts, standing behind a barricade of chuck wagons and cast-iron stoves' they perform like a drill squad, turning out samples of pan de campo to an endless crush of faces and hands. Cooks Martin Champion and Flavio Villarreal banish me from the chow line after learning I''m not really from Warner Brothers and can''t sign them to film my next movie.
 'I cozy-up for a conversation with Flavio, a retired cowboy who once herded 9,000 head on a 30,000-acre ranch. Now he''s paid to do demonstrations of the cowboy lifestyle and heritage, and cries watching John Wayne. His cooking line partner, Martin Champion, a Border Patrol agent until he can find a full-time job turning out fajitas, offers to give up his recipe. But he fixes a hard stare my way, and promises –' “'I will have to kill you.”'
 'Naturally, we move on.
 'At the other end of the field at the far northeast corner of the Civic Center''s lawnwe find Gilbert and Irene Mercado, a husband-and-wife team who have competed together for 30 years, a minimum of eight times a year.
 'Their breakthrough came in 2004 when they took eight of 10 first place prizes at Kerrville''s South Texas Heritage Cook Off.

NO TENEMOS RANCHO
Following others onto the Kerrville awards platform, and listening to them all addressed by the ranch they represented, the Mercados humbly admitted to the crowd that they didn''t have a ranch. No Tenemos Rancho (we don''t have a ranch) they said, as they pulled in award after award for their expert cook off entries. The phrase stuck, and this group of landless cook off professionals is now proudly and officially known as team No Tenemos Rancho.
 'But you wouldn''t know they didn''t have a ranch by the looks of their set-up which seems exactly like a ranch squeezed onto a 40 square foot patch of grass.
 'No Tenemos Rancho''s display has a cave man simplicity that belies their experience: A fire pit with a giant haunch of beef wrapped with baling wire is suspended over white-hot coals. Cook Roberto Pena explains it''s a hindquarter, the source of T-Bone, sirloin, and rib eye. It''s been cooking all day he says, after marinating overnight.
 'We ask what the beef marinated in.
 '“'Love.”' Robert says.
 '“'Taste,”' he adds.
 '“'All your heart,”' he finishes.
 'It''s apparently the magic combination. At 7 pm this Sunday evening. the judges announce the winners. In the categories of Traditional Fajitas, and Showmanship, No Tenemos Rancho wins both.