Fajitas Find their Roots in the Rio Grande Valley
Fajitas were born in the Rio Grande Valley' granddaddy cook off still
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
'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
'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
'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.
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.”'
'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
'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
'We ask what the beef marinated in.
'“'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.