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Fajita Vs. Taco: The Great Steak Debate

May 20, 2021 4 min read

Fajita Vs. Taco

At first glance, a plate of sizzling fajitas with tortillas and tacos looks almost identical. Although they share some common traits, there's still quite a difference between fajita and taco ingredients - namely, the protein. Get your answer below. 

Authentic Mexican food is a big hit in North America, as are Americanized versions of traditional Mexican dishes. Though created by Mexicans, fajitas first became rooted on West Texas cattle ranches, while tacos found fame from deep in the silver mines of Mexico. 

Sometimes fajitas are tacos, but tacos are never fajitas. Confused yet? We were too. 

Read our guide below to understand the similarities and differences between these two famous foods. 

What is a fajita?

A little fajita history...

A fajita, at its core, is a slight variation on the Spanish "faja," meaning little belts or girdle. This term originally referred to the type of meat used in the dish - carne asada, or skirt steak, a thin, long muscle found in the cow's diaphragm area. 

The origin of fajitas has a much shorter history than the taco, with the steak-based dish first popping up among Mexican ranch workers in West Texas in the 1930s and 40s. Ranch owners sometimes partially paid these ranch hands with meat, and, unsurprisingly, the meat cattle ranchers offered their staff was beef. 

Ranch hands received the least desirable cow parts like the head, entrails, and skirt steak. This tough cut of beef needed a little finesse from an experienced cook to turn into anything edible. The workers tenderized their skirt steak with a long marinating process, followed by a quick grill. 

In the late 1960s, fajitas moved to widespread fame when a meat market manager named Sonny Falcon set up a fajita concession stand at festivals, with plenty of us enjoying them in restaurants since. Sonny even became known as the "Fajita King." The 1980s brought fajitas created with higher quality meat cuts, which pleased the masses even more. 

What's in a fajita - Modern ingredients

Today, we've seen the term for fajitas morph from marinated, grilled, skirt steak to proteins and ingredients of all sorts.

What is fajita meat?

Any modern fajitas made with skirt steak still marinate for tenderness. The chef then grills the steak and cuts the meat against the grain to promote even better texture. These days, you will see so many more fajita proteins available, from chicken and shrimp to vegetarian and vegan options. 

Often, chefs grill veggies with the meat - sweet bell peppers and onions are almost always present, with soft tortillas, cheese, salsa, and sour cream served on the side for some DIY wraps. 

Modern restaurant fajitas are a big star at many restaurants, as servers often present them uniquely. On top of receiving the ingredients separately to assemble oneself, guests all over the restaurant usually know when a fajita is coming before they even see it. Servers usually bring a scorching-hot cast-iron skillet tableside, covered in the fajita toppings that sizzle and pop the entire way over. 

What is a taco?

A taco is a famous, traditional Mexican dish with a small corn tortilla base filled with tasty ingredients, folded in half, and eaten with the hands. As you can imagine, this taco definition covers a broad range of components. Even the base will change from corn tortillas to crispy corn shells, wheat tortillas, or alternative flour bases. 

A longer taco history…

Tacos date back - way, way back. The Aztec culture first cultivated corn crops, turning them into a staple. From there, nixtamalized corn followed suit, creating the cornflour base for tortillas. 

Though Mexicans of the past used tortillas as scoops for food for centuries and likely enjoyed informal versions of the modern taco, the first well-known instances of folded tacos come straight from the Mexican silver mines. Women brought their miner and farmer husbands food wrapped in tortillas for easy carrying to eat as they worked all day. "Tacos de minero," miners tacos, was an homage to the original "taco," explosives wrapped up in a thin paper, used to break down rock faces in the mines. 

Want to learn more? We have the whole article on history of tacos ready for you!

What's in a taco - Modern ingredients

Tacos contain all sorts of ingredients, but generally, they have a protein base with onion, salsa, sour cream, lime, and other fresh food. Some common proteins are fish and seafood, pork, beef, and chicken. 

Taco toppings can be almost anything. You can make a breakfast taco with eggs, a dessert taco with ice cream and bananas, or a vegan taco stuffed with fresh veggies. 

Hard or soft shell? Traditional Mexican preparations always use soft corn tortillas. But the cuisine fusion known as Tex-Mex uses soft flour tacos or hard corn taco shells. Neither is wrong, though one is traditional and the other is more modern. 

What is the difference between tacos and fajitas?

There is some overlap between fajitas and tacos, which can be a little confusing. You can consider tortilla wraps made with fajita meat tacos, but they're not the same - there are plenty of different tacos available that don't fit into the fajita definition. 

Fajitas in tortillas are tacos, but tacos aren't (always) fajitas. 

Even fajitas technically don't fit into a proper fajitas definition anymore, though perhaps the definition has morphed along with the dish's ingredients. You can have fajita tacos or fajita nachos - fajitas and tacos are both made with all sorts of modern, out-of-the-box ingredients.

There's another difference between fajitas and tacos. As a general rule of thumb, fajita ingredients are almost always grilled, including veggies, while tacos often have fresh lettuce, tomatoes, and other raw vegetables on top. 

When we're talking authentic versions of each dish, there is almost no difference between fajita vs. taco seasoning. They both contain popular Mexican spices like chili, paprika, and cumin, but fajita seasoning often has garlic and onion powder, while taco seasoning has none. 

Final notes: Fajitas and tacos

At its root, there's only one basic principle you need to remember and understand the difference between fajitas and tacos:

Fajitas refer to a protein that sometimes gets put into tacos, while tacos refer to almost any food wrapped in a tortilla. 

Pull out your taco holder, marinate, and grill up some skirt steak, and enjoy your next taco night with traditional fajita tacos!

Enjoyed this article? Check out our article on chalupa vs taco!

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