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1938-2019: Austin’s ’Fajita King,’ Juan ’Sonny’ Falcon has died

by Michael Barnes,
Sonny Falcón, who popularized the fajita in Central Texas 50 years ago, grilled an outside skirt steak cut to make fajitas outside his Austin home earlier this year. [ELI IMADALI/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

Fajita King” Juan Antonio “Sonny” Falcón, who is credited with introducing the fajita to the general public in 1969 at a Diez y Seis celebration in Kyle, died Thursday at 81.

Fifty years ago, Falcón worked as a butcher in Guajardo Cash Grocery & Market, a popular store run by his formidable mother-in-law, Soledad Guardiola Guajardo, at Ninth and Lydia streets in East Austin. Guajardo died in 1983 at age 77.

“I had been at the house, experimenting with skirt steaks, which were usually trimmed off and run through a grinder to make hamburger,” Falcón told the American-Statesman earlier this year. “So I made a little mock fillet with a piece of skirt. I put a piece of tallow in the center, rolled it up and then wrapped it with bacon and put it in the broiler. It turned out to be the tastiest.”

Falcón was onto something.

“No spices, no tenderizer,” Falcón said. “Just tasty and tender. I told people in the store, ‘Man, here’s a cut you can take home and cook, and it’s going to be real good.’ I grilled part of it, chopped it up, put it on a flour tortilla, put on some hot sauce, and man, I thought, this is going to replace the hot dog.”

His son, John Falcón, has meticulously documented his father’s career with the fajita, which included popular turns at Austin Aquafest, and convincingly made the argument for his place in food history.

Born in in 1938 in Mercedes in the Rio Grande Valley, Sonny Falcón was a promising baseball player who moved to Austin in 1958. He soon married Guadalupe Guajardo, an Austin native whose widowed mother, Soledad Guajardo, was a savvy businesswoman who invested judiciously in real estate and radio.

Sonny and Guadalupe had three children, John, Robert and Jose, or “Joe.” The younger sons went into the funerary business.

“He was the greatest dad of all-time,” his sons said in a statement, “always there for you, leading by example, encouraging us all along the way … simply the best. He was a husband who provided for his family in all ways possible, married only once until he lost his wife of over 56 years in December 2018. A true quiet humanitarian who opened his house to the sick, embraced those who were experiencing challenges, provided shelter for those in need.”

To the general public, the Fajita King became something of a beloved character, quickly identified by his old-style cowboy hat, flowing hair and full beard at events all over Central Texas.

To the end, some were skeptical that Falcón could have introduced fajitas, which seem to have been with us always.

“I believe that if you are younger than 55, you probably don’t know any better,” John said earlier this year. “You believe that fajitas have been around since Jesus Christ, that you would have found them on menus forever right next to the tacos and enchiladas. Older folks need to be prodded to remember — what a rush of excitement there was around this new dish.”

A celebration of his life is planned for early 2020. John Falcón said that fajitas will be served before his father’s interment at the Texas State Cemetery.