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Apr 13, 2010
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Wine With . . . Steak Fajitas

by Paul Lukacs and Marguerite Thomas

The culinary tradition from which fajitas emerged lies deep in the heart of Texas.  Like many Tex-Mex favorites, this one is likely related to an old Mexican specialty.  In this case it’s arracheros, cuts of beef cooked over open fires that fed the vaqueros who worked roundups across the border.  The cuts consisted of scraps left over from butchering cattle, all the parts that couldn’t be sold commercially, such as the head and heart, the tripe, the tail, and the trimmings, which included skirt steak.  Eventually, fajitas segued from cowboy campfires to Tex-Mex restaurants, where the dish’s ongoing popularity may have something to do with the fact that it is often carried to the table sizzling dramatically on a hot metal platter.   

Although the original fajitas were made only from skirt steak, any number of different cuts and types of meat are used today, from steak, to pork, to chicken, and even shrimp.  Cooked sliced onions are traditional accompaniments, and many people like to include sliced sautéed bell peppers as well.  In restaurants, fajitas are commonly served with heaps of sour cream, grated cheese, salsa, and guacamole, but we take a more minimalist view.  We think the dish tastes best -- and certainly is friendlier to wine -- with less adornment.   The most delicious fajitas involve not much more than grilled or pan seared steak, cut in thin slices against the grain, tucked into a soft, warm flour tortilla and topped with a spoonful of sautéed onions.  Add a splash of lime juice, a flash of hot sauce, and roll the whole thing up.  Oh okay, go ahead and add some guacamole; after all, everything tastes better with guac.


Serves 4

1 or 2 skirt steaks, about 12 ounces total

Salt and pepper to taste

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

1 teaspoon grated lime peel

3 garlic cloves, very finely minced

½ jalapeño pepper (or more, depending on desired level of heat), very finely minced

1 tablespoon Sriracha or other hot sauce

3 teaspoons cumin

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 large onion

2 tablespoons olive oil

Warm flour tortillas

Extra sauce to pass at the table

Season the steaks with salt and pepper.  Mix together the lime juice and grated peel, the garlic, hot sauce and cumin.  Place the steaks in a deep-sided glass dish or a zip lock bag and pour half the lime juice mixture over it, reserving the rest for later use.  Let the meat marinate 10 to 30 minutes. Cut the onion in half lengthwise and slice it thinly.  Pour the olive oil into a skillet, add the onion slices and jalapeno, and sauté over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the onions are thoroughly cooked (do not let them brown).  Remove from heat and stir in the remaining lime juice mixture.  Grill the steak (or sear it over high heat on the stove top) to desired doneness, then slice it against the grain into strips about ½ inch thick.  Serve the fajitas, topped with onions, in warm tortillas.

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We tried twelve different red wines with our fajitas.  Since we tend to think of this dish as a casual one, we kept the prices relatively low, with $20 being the ceiling for any single bottle.  The wines that fared best all shared certain characteristics.  They were youthful and exuberant, with overt red and black fruit flavors, easy to drink and not especially complex.  Wines with a more earthy, multi-faceted personality (a Côtes-du-Rhône, for example, and a New Zealand Pinot Noir) tended to get lost when having to compete not just with the meat but also with the onions, hot sauce, and guacamole.  So if you’re making fajitas, especially for a party, there’s no need to spring for a super-fancy wine.  Look instead for one whose appeal comes from the simplicity of unbridled youth.  



Approx. Price





Calina, Valle del Maule (Chile) Cabernet Sauvignon “Reserva” 2008

(Imported by Sovereign Wine Imports)







Deep and dark, and like so many Chilean Cabs at this low price point, offering excellent balance and harmony, this wine was the star of the evening.  With the fajitas, it tasted as though it should cost two or three times as much.




Morgan, Monterey (California) “Cote du Crow’s” 2008





This blend of 55% Syrah and 45% Grenache offers hints of black pepper in the finish, but the dominant flavors resemble dark cherries and juicy plums.  That fruit-filled quality was what made it so enjoyable with our fajitas.  




Finca La Linda, Luján de Cuyo Mendoza (Argentina) Malbec 2008

(Imported by Testa Wines)







Softer on the palate than many Argentinean Malbecs, this wine had just enough of a tannic structure to work with this particular dish. Steak fajitas are fairly substantial.  We found that wines that are soft or light in body can’t hold up to them. 




Purple Cowboy, Paso Robles (California) “Tenacious Red” 2007









A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, this wine tasted so juicy as to seem almost grapey when sipped on its own, but gained depth when enjoyed with the fajitas.  Many California red blends in this price category prove disappointing.  This one delighted us.







Rancho Zabaco, Sonoma County (California) Zinfandel “Heritage Vines” 2008








While another Zinfandel that we tried seemed too hot and heavy, this well-balanced one made a very attractive dinner partner.  Its ripe fruit and briary undertones were just what the fajitas needed to taste complete.