Heads turn as your server bears the tray aloft. As it moves across the dining room and settles on your table, your entree is the Vanderpump scandal on a plate. It’s Rihanna descending from the heavens for the Super Bowl halftime show, surrounded by a backup-dancer army of platters containing garnishes: pico de gallo and mounds of cheese, little bundles of warm tortillas, and maybe even a bowl of guacamole.
Such fervor makes the recent revelations about the dish so shocking to some fajita fans. Last month, people on TikTok reacted with betrayal and disbelief to videos that took diners into the heart of tortilla-wrapped darkness: It turns out that some restaurants amp up the special effects — that iconic steam and sizzle — by squirting droplets of water or oil onto the hot cast-iron platters just before parading them through the dining room.
“It’s an artificial sizzle,” said TikTok user @scottysdaysoff, who got nearly 9.4 million views for sharing the video of a worker at an unnamed restaurant squeezing what looks to be a bottle of water onto a plate of fajitas. “They just put water on the hot pan,” he lamented. “It’s not the food cooking.”
This divulging of the magicians’ secret seemed to knock some viewers’ worlds off their axis. “My whole life has been a lie,” commented one.
The scents and sounds and visuals associated with fajitas might help explain why they have such a strong hold on us. Jessica Dupuy, the author of “The United Tastes of Texas,” recalls going out to eat with her family as a kid in Texas. At the local Tex-Mex restaurants they frequented, the mood was usually lively, and maybe there was mariachi music playing. “Then you hear that sizzle as a waiter is walking through the room, and there’s this waft of meat and onion and bell pepper — that is real,” she says. “The magic of the fajita is rooted in that powerful sensory memory.”
Joseph Provost, a chemistry and biochemistry professor at the University of San Diego, doesn’t think people should feel bamboozled. “I don’t understand why people are so upset — it’s just a presentation,” he says. While diners might think they want to see smoke and not steam, that would probably result in an overcooked mess, he says.
When meat first hits a hot pan, he explains, steam is released as the moisture from the meat or marinade evaporates. Then, with a hot enough pan, you might see smoke, which is the oxidized bits and pieces of sugar and protein. “But keep doing that and you’re going to get a charred piece of meat — literally charcoal, says Provost, who co-wrote “The Science of Cooking: Understanding the Biology and Chemistry Behind Food and Cooking.” “Your food would be so dry and burned, you wouldn’t want that.”
Recipe: Chicken Tender Fajitas
Adding a few drops of water merely creates a swirl of steam, he says — it might soften the crisp meat a tiny bit, but the water will evaporate.
It isn’t clear how widespread the practice depicted on the TikTok post is, but not all fajitas rely on amped-up presentation. At Candente in Houston, the secret is a superhot pan. Cooks heat the cast-iron sizzle pans they’re served on over a wood fire until they turn grayish-white, says general manager Ryan Eckenrode. When the meat and vegetables hit the pan, they sizzle for real — assisted by a bit of chile-lime butter. Because cast iron retains heat well, the effect “lasts longer than you would think,” he says.
Eckenrode has seen the TikTok videos, which he found funny — and an opportunity to throw a little shade. “You can tell the difference in product, I’ll just say that,” he says. “I’ve never seen anyone do that before.” He was particularly bemused by the addition of water to create the effect, which he said might just water down the dish if applied too generously.
And some fajitas don’t even rely on the razzle-dazzle of a steaming plate at all. At Arzola’s Fajitas + Margaritas in St. Louis, the dish is served the way co-owner Coby Arzola’s father made them when he first introduced the city to Tex-Mex in the 1980s at his legendary restaurant, Chuy Arzola’s — that is, without the fanfare.
“My dad thought the show and other stuff was a way to cover up poor ingredients,” he says. “He always said it’s less about the sizzle and more about the quality.”
Like many iconic dishes, the fajita has a complicated parentage. Though the concept of grilled or skillet-cooked meats and vegetables wasn’t new, what we now call a fajita has been attributed to several Texan sources. In 1969, a meat salesman named Sonny Falcon ran a fajita taco concession stand in Kyle; that year, fajitas also appeared at Otilia Garza’s Round-Up Restaurant in the Rio Grande Valley community of Pharr, according to a 2005 history of the dish in the Austin Chronicle.
María Ninfa Rodríguez Laurenzo, better known as Mama Ninfa, is widely credited with popularizing them at her Houston tortilla shop in 1973. The tacos al carbone she served there featured the kind of coal-fire cooked meat she grew up with in the Rio Grande Valley — which eventually morphed into the assemble-it-yourself dish. The name “fajitas” derives from “faja,” the Spanish word for “belt” that’s also used to describe the cut of skirt steak it employs.
Eventually, fajitas rode the 1980s wave of Tex-Mex restaurants, including chains such as Chili’s and Chi-Chis, that spread well past Texas’s borders. By the late ’80s and ’90s, fajitas were ensconced in the wider pop culture. In a 1998 episode of “Will and Grace,” the titular characters are discussing where to go for a celebratory lunch when Grace nixes one of her best friend’s suggestions. “No Mexican,” she cuts him off. “Fajita hair. It frizzes when the steaming chicken hits the table.” They made a meme-able cameo on “Friends” when Ross served them at a dinner party to his ex, Rachel, and her new boyfriend, their mutual “Friend,” Joey.
More so than almost any other food, fajitas have taken on a personality online, where they feature in classic and of-the-moment memes. Fajita envy is a common thread: A recent one depicted Gwyneth Paltrow at her March skiing-accident trial, caught in a moment where she was looking over her shoulder with an expression of mild interest. “When the table behind me orders fajitas,” the caption read. The dish is often given the “Distracted Boyfriend” treatment — some variation of an image where a man’s attention is diverted from his partner (“my chosen entree”) to someone else (“sizzling skillet of fajitas at another table”). Another genre mocks people who consider themselves to be “free thinkers” transformed into flocks of sheep or robot armies at the sight of a platter of fajitas.
There’s also a torrent of scorn leveled at people who order fajitas, mocking them as terminally thirsty attention-seekers insistent on doing the most. “The people who order fajitas and people who back into parking spaces Venn diagram is a circle,” observed one. “People who wear neon in public are the same people who order fajitas,” wrote another. Conversely, riding a unicycle is “the ordering fajitas of the cycling world,” according to one observer.
Comedian Cameron Bradford last year tweeted a bit about fajitas in another vein of comedy surrounding the dish — that it’s not a food for introverts. “I’ll take the fajitas, and please let them cool off a bit and bring them on a standard plate. I don’t need a … spectacle,” he wrote.
His joke got shared and picked up by meme accounts on Instagram. In an interview, he said it was meant to be funny — sort of. Bradford says he’s genuinely annoyed by fajita drama. “It’s obnoxious. Everyone has to pause and watch these fajitas taken out to someone like they are Little Lord Fauntleroy. It forces everyone else to sit through a theater act.”
But for true-blue fajita fans, that’s just the point. Like many lovers of the dish, Daniel Joseph can trace his allegiance back to childhood memories of dining out. “Everyone in the restaurant knows what’s coming, and people are watching — it’s a spectacle for everyone, not just your table,” says Joseph, a mortgage underwriter in Charlotte. “It’s like, you know that guy over there is jealous with his burrito.”
Joseph and his wife don’t go out to eat too often, but he says they regularly make fajitas at home, using a plastic bottle of seasoning that his father-in-law concocts from a dozen spices and herbs. These days, fajitas hold more grown-up appeal — they’re a good way to load up on vegetables, and they’re endlessly customizable — but the dish still hearkens to those early experiences. “It seems silly that it was so exciting,” he says. “But there’s just something about it.”