The Unorthodox Epicure —Tacos al Carbon

Fajitas (grilled skirt steak) were introduced in 1973 at Ninfa’s in Houston as tacos al carbon (charbroiled tacos). The history of the name is not exactly clear, but make no mistake — fajitas are about as Mexican as spaghetti and meatballs.

The dish was originally concocted to please eager customers at Ninfa’s downtown Houston location. When big names like John Travolta, Rock Hudson and members of ZZ Top began frequenting the place, the secret was out. Ninfa’s eventually became a chain and the rest is history.

Want fajitas on the cheap? Order tacos al carbon. While many chains have eliminated tacos al carbon from the menu, they can still be found on the menus of some mom & pop operations. Same meat. Same tortillas. Fewer pesos out of your pocket. Besides, ‘tacos al carbon’ just sounds cool.

Tacos al Carbon

Tacos al Carbon might look like a traditional Mexican dish, but it is actually the predecessor to fajitas, born in a Houston restaurant.

Tacos al Carbon — the predecessor to fajitas, born in a Houston restaurant.

Tacos al Carbon
Tacos al Carbon — the predecessor to fajitas, born in a Houston restaurant.
Recipe type: main
Cuisine: Mexican/Tex-Mex
Serves: 12
  • About 2 lbs - Skirt steak
  • 1 cup - Salsa Quemada, or your favorite red salsa
  • Juice of 3 Limes
Traditional Tacos al Carbon toppers
  • Grilled onions
  • Grilled sweet peppers
  • Pickled Jalapenos
  • Avocado slices
  • Fresh Cilantro
  • Salsa verde or Salsa roja
  1. Combine salsa and lime juice; pour over steak (I use a gallon-size zip bag); and let marinate at least 8 hours or overnight in the refrigerator.
Cooking in cast iron
  1. Preheat large cast iron skillet to medium-high.
  2. Cook steak for about 3-4 minutes per side.
  3. Allow to rest for about 5 minutes on a cutting board before slicing. (Though this produces tasty results, make certain your stove vent is working because of the smoke you'll create.)
Cooking on a gas grill
  1. Preheat the grill to medium high.
  2. My grill has a cast iron grate and cooks this steak to a nice medium to medium rare-doneness at about 5 minutes her side. If your grill has stainless grates, allow a couple extra minutes per side.
Cooking on charcoal or wood coals
  1. If you're not a regular charcoal cook, this can be a little tricky. First, don't skimp on cheap charcoal. Saving a couple of dollars is not worth messing up a meal. Also, use plenty of briquettes. If your pile of charcoal looks like you've used to much, chances are, it's the perfect amount.
  2. Prepare your charcoal (or wood coals) as you usually would — lighting and allowing to burn until white hot and ashy in appearance.
  3. Most grates sit about 4-5 inches from the coals. At this distance, a medium-rare skirt steak is accomplished in about 4 minutes per side. This is the most delicious way of preparing skirt steaks for Tacos al Carbon.
    Serve in warmed flour tortillas. A 2 lb. skirt steak makes about 10-12 Tacos al Carbon.

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  1. I love Tacos al Carbon and I never knew that was the original fajita!!! We have a few authentic places near us that still have this on the menu. Thanks for the food history lesson. (You’re right, Tacos al Carbon sounds hipper than fajitas!)

  2. I’m scouring the menu for these the next time I’m at my favorite Mexican restaurant!

  3. Claire Hill says:

    I remember when skirt steak was hard to find. Brookshire’s used to consider skirt steak to be waste meat and they ground it into hamburger meat. I always enjoy reading your blog. Thank you !

  4. Looks tasty, Adam and nice tip on the tacos al carbon for those not in the know. ;) I think the best fajitas I ever cooked was “Caveman style”. Get your coals nice and hot and then just throw the meat right onto the coals. Cook a few minutes per side and you are good to go. Alton Brown shows how to do it on one of his Good Eat episodes. Probably available somewher on the good ole interweb if you are interested. Ah….here it is:

    • adamjholland says:

      Thanks, Jason. I used to do a lot of direct-coal cooking and you’re right, it’s delicious. I think Food & Wine had a piece a few months back about cooking eggplant on direct coals. Looked mighty fine and worth a try. Hope all is well in the Big D.

  5. Ah-HA, so Ninfa’s is to blame in the skyrocketing price of flank steak? Love these Tacos-al-carbon. And with that beautiful slice of avocado…mmmmm

  6. Do you think your wife would let me and my husband move in with you so you could cook for us all the time?!?!? I love your food and this is no exception!

  7. I’ll tell ya Adam, even if I wasn’t recovering, thinking of all the wonderful meals I really, really NEED, this would be making my mouth water. I’m looking at this and thinking it really is something that my husband could easily do…with just a little encouragement from me. I’m sitting him down to go over this with him and not letting him weasel out of this one. Stand by in case I need backup.

    • adamjholland says:

      I’ve already picked up some ‘backup’ to send your way. I’d like to pick up a couple of other items, then it will be on its way. :-)

      • You are a prince Adam or maybe a knight in shining armor? All went incredibly well, so much so that I might even be back in the kitchen myself shortly. I’ll tell you, that special wing at The Brighams has a first rate kitchen and my next post will be mentioning some of the menu items. In a way, I wish I had stayed longer because I really didn’t get a chance to try a lot of things the chef had to offer.

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