HOME > Chowhound > Home Cooking >


Tacos al Carbon- recipe / technique

Does anyone have some experience preparing what I thought was "authentic" tacos al carbon? From what I'm finding through google research it would appear that "al carbon" like "al pastor" is more of a generic term than an actual process. I have them at a local Mexican place here in CO that I think is serving more Sonoran style food. I know I can find some skirt or flap or flank blah blah marinade or dry rub etc.. etc... but I want to know what the REAL thing is? Or if I just knew that there really wasn't such a thing as "the original" I would probably be okay. Perhaps.. like "spaghetti and meatballs" it's something that doesn't actually exist back in time and is nothing more than the amalgamation of several Mexican orignals now being prepared for us gringos.

So far all the recipes I've found on the web appear to be based on skirt or flank... but I also know carne asada STARTED as filet in Tampico and then migrated to cheaper cuts over time. Is the same deal for "al carbon"?

Anyone with time in a good mexican restaurant kitchen is definitely welcome to this party! Help a gringo get some comida authentica! OR authentico.. whichever :-)

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. I've been eating tacos al carbon for -- well, since Montezuma made them! -- and what I've been eating and enjoying all these years is good charcoal broiled steak that's sliced thin and served in a taco shell (crisp or soft). Never had them made with skirt or flank stead until fajitas raised their ugly head and pushed "al carbon" over the edge. I am not a fajita fan. They are almost always tough.

    No idea what is "authentic," but I do know that the tacos al carbon of twenty or thirty years ago were MUCH better than the tacos al carbon I'm served in restaurants today.

    If I were making them from scratch, I would use thin but well marbled steaks charcoal broiled on a very hot fire, carefully not overdone (I like beef rare), then sliced in thin strips and loaded into a taco shell with whatever else you want to put in with it. Once the steak is sliced, you can put it in a bowl and toss it with chipotle sauce or any chile sauce if you want to make sure it has some kick. I'm more prone to serve the sauces on the side and let people do their own thing.

    1. Al carbon means charcoal grilled. It is not a flavoring like al pastor. If I went somewhere that had tacos al carbon on offer, and they pan grilled the steak, I would be PISSED! I use a cut of outer skirt steak, lime juice garlic powder, salt, cumin, fresh ground black pepper, and a GRILL. NOT A GRIDDLE!!!!!!

      Very high heat, steak cooked medium rare.
      Warm corn tortillas (2 tortillas per taco)
      cilantro, onion, squeeze of lime, and some flamin pico de gallo.
      Eso es un taco del carbon!!!!
      No cheese, no lettuce, no tomato.

      16 Replies
      1. re: gordeaux

        Thanks both Caroline and Gordeaux. You are both on the right track and I will attempt to mimic the restaurant's version and use a sirloin, strip or ribeye and endeavor to get some mesquite smoke going on my gas grill before I add the steaks. The restaurant serves them in double-thick corn tortillas, with cilantro, lime and onion as you state. A bountiful side of guacamole on shredded lettuce complete the dish. I will marinate w/ lime juice, etc... as you state.

        I'll let you know the ups and downs.

        1. re: e_bone

          I'd use skirt steak. I normally use choice grade outer skirt. This cut of steak is better suited for chopping, whereas sirloin, strip, or ribeye are more aesthetically pleasing which you have to pay for.Skirt has all the flavor and tenderness of a ribeye, but it's pretty scraggly looking. I usually pay no more than 2.99 / lb for choice skirt, but for choice ribeye, I'm looking at 4.99+. Choice sirloin I usually get for 3.99 /lb, but sirloin is gonna be a little bit more chewy than a skirt. Go ahead and try yuour hand, these are just my suggestions/observations on bang for your buck for tacos al carbon.

          1. re: gordeaux

            My experience is that skirt steak never has the marbeling or fat content of the other cuts, and it's the fat that really picks up and amplifies the charcoal flavor. On the other hand, you may have a much more customer friendly butcher than I do! '-)

            1. re: Caroline1

              I've never seen a sirloin,or strip with more fat than a skirt in my life. Are you confusing skirt steak with flank steak?

              1. re: gordeaux

                I don't think so, but then again, anything is possible. I've just never seen skirt steak with large rims of fat on it like a rib or strip. As I said, I like LOTS of fat. Great flavor from the charcoal. But maybe I should look a little closer at skirt steak? I just can't recall ever seeing it with the large margins of pure fat. Am I confusing it with flank?

                Anyway, if you want something really drop dead delicious to go with your tacos al carbon, throw some peeled avacados on the grill too. I dropped a wedge on the grill through pure clumsiness one day, and WOW! It is fabulous!

                1. re: Caroline1

                  Here's quick vid from Bittman I just saw from another thread involving skirt. This is what the skirts I use look like. TONS of fat. Not only the rim. but all over them. Also, if you really look inside his skirts, there is crazy marbling throughout.


                  1. re: gordeaux

                    Yup. That's what I thought it was. It's a personal thing, but I find it tougher than ribs and strips, and demanding on how thin you carve it if you want to limit your mandibular exercise. '-)

                    1. re: Caroline1

                      Caroline, I think you may have experienced the wider/redder/thinner 'inner' skirt steak...
                      The 'outer', could not be juicier and more buttery tender...
                      It's thicker and more purple when raw...


                      Bittman seems to be a great dude----- and I like my meat rare and medium rare too--- but this marbled 'outer' skirt is a cut that actually 'can' be enjoyed cooked thru, after a rest...
                      The warning was not necessary IMO...
                      It has NEVER gone livery on me, like chuck blade and flat-iron steaks have......

                      I cook it very often and I like it pink, while my Argentinean wife doesnt... Luckily there's a thick and a thin end, so we're both happy...
                      Doesn't bother me one bit to finish off what she can't...

                      1. re: Mild Bill

                        hmmm... Don't know whether to classify myself as frugal or a wastrel, but I have a real problem with the price of meat today. Guess that's due to age as much as anything. Anyway, for tacos al carbon, I buy a porterhouse, cut off the strip steak, cut off the filet, put the filet in the freezer, slice the strip steak into three thin strip steaks, toss 'em buck nekid onto the smokin' hot barbecue so it chars 'em in a flash, flip 'em over, take 'em off and slice them into thin strips. Then I season them, usually with salt, pepper, garlic powder and slide them into a couple of warm corn tortillas with a squeeze of lime, salsa or chile sauce of choice (I really like Tobasco green), and then add a wedge or two of charcoal broiled avacado and a bit of cilantro. Everything else is optional.

                        I'm always sad when I finish eating them because if I were empty, I could start all over again... They're GOOD...!!!

                        Oh, and I may (or may not) toss the bone on the grill too and have it for dessert. Or I may freeze it. But any way you slice it, I get at least two meals for the price of the porterhouse, and that brings it close to the price of a skirt steak for one meal. So, am I frugal or am I squandering bucks? '-)

                      2. re: Caroline1

                        I rarely find it tougher, but I do chop it up for tacos after it's cooked. For the price, and what I use it for, I find it hard to beat. For a "steak dinner" however, I tend to go with a nice ribeye or top sirloin. I know ribeye is better, but I love a good meaty rare sirloin as a bargain priced alternative. So maybe, there you have it. You're probably right and it's a personal thing. I might just like cuts with a little bit more "chew" to them than other folks, and I might not really think those cuts are "chewier."

                        1. re: gordeaux

                          I suspect that our respective ages have as much to do with our beef preferences as anything else. Making a wild guess based on very little evidence, I would estimate you to be forty or younger, and probably younger. I'm twice your age and grew up with very tender dry aged beef as the norm. I hate wet aged beef. It just doesn't taste right. And with wet aged beef, the more upscale the cut, the closer it comes to tasting half way decent. To put it another way, I'm old enough that I can remember when McDonalds served dry aged beef! Now they use USDA Select (or less) wet cured and press down on the patties to turn them into instant beef jerky. <sigh> I'm a picky beef eater.

                          1. re: Caroline1

                            yup. you pegged me. I am under 40, but it's only a few years away...

                            My dad always says that each Beef grade has shifted down. What was choice when he was younger is now currently prime, old select is now choice...
                            I guess I can't really "argue" with you because I wasn't around then. Thank you for the perspective though.

                            ***argue being a strong term. Better term would probably just be "sharing opinions."

                            1. re: gordeaux

                              I like "exchanging information." But here's something to consider: If the world continues down this slippery slope, by the time you're the age of your dad and me, you will be waxing nostalgic about the wonderful beef of today that your dad and I call crap. See? Time does NOT heal all things! But it's a fortunate condition of man to think that whatever time we are native to is the "best."

              2. re: gordeaux

                without being specific... where do you live Gordeaux?? The town of 1975 Grocery Pricing?? Skirt and Flank here in Denver are nearly always 5-6$/lb at very best... Ribeye is 10-13! You must buy in major bulk I assume? Anyway- ironically I found a great buy on pork and am actually going to try "al pastor" today and save the "al carbon" for next weekend.

                1. re: e_bone

                  Why would I not be specific? I live in Chicago. No bulk, just regular sale prices on choice beef here. What, your King Soopers or Safeways don't hook you up with good prices? At least you can get hatch green chile, and sushi happy hour in Lodo.

                  Yes, I lived in Denver for a few years. Right in the hood around 16th and Pearl.

                  1. re: gordeaux

                    You can get Hatch chili in Denver in the Fall?
                    The shipping prices have separated me from Hatch for several years now.

                    Meat prices are so high we may start fencing our fields and raising a calf or two each year.

          2. I don't have a dog in the meat part of this fight, most suggestions here work well. Slice it THINTHIN so the taco doesn't tear apart during the first bite. But the freshness of the corn tortilla is essential to overall success. I double -up on the standard thin-press ones, lightly heated on the skillet until you get a few brown spots- 20 or 30 seconds, and I steer away from the double -thick.
            Pico de gallo works, as does a mild tomatillo sauce, plus cebolla, cilantro, and lime.
            Or, load em' up on huaraches, if you can find them, with a big dollop of guac.

            1. I see one thing missing in all of the posts below. You don't use regular charcoal in making the tacos al carbon; you use wooden brickets. You'll need to go to a Mexican market or a specialty store to pick them up. Most of the restaurants in the US don't make the al carbon style correctly, at least up north in Seattle where I am. If you find a pollo asado place or a place that specializes in al carbon with an outdoor grill in California, you've got a chance to find the good stuff.

              I miss having my students from Mexico make it for me...

              1. im sorry everyone, but i would never use skirt stake for authentic tacos. Im from Mexico City and we use thinly cut top loin steak

                1. I have lived in Tucson Az for 20 years, and have gone into sonora mexico hundreds of times to eat "carne asada" or "al carbon" tacos, they are the same. They use very thin steak, what ever is on sale, as long as its boneless and isn't lean. mesquite charcoal or wood is needed, and they actually spray or brush their steak with vegetable oil before grilling so it doesnt stick. seasonings are minimal, its up to you ; ) grill hot and fast. also grill some green onions along with the steak.
                  and the toppings are key here. taco sauce, pickled red onion (usually pickled in vinegar or lime juice), shredded cabage (raw), queso fresco optional, salsa fresca(tomato, onion, chile, cilantro all marinated in lime juice, salt and pepper), cut up lime wedges, guacamole, grilled green onions. these are all optional toppings.
                  In Tucson we mostly use flour tortillas, and in northern Sonora Mexico they usually will ask you for your preference, as you go more south you start to see corn being used more frequently. I saw a couple of videos on you tube under carne asada, and that may help as well.

                  20 Replies
                  1. re: vbutterfly72

                    One of my "foodie" hobbies is checking out menus for all sorts of restaurants online. Since this thread originated four years ago, I have been keeping an eye on "Tacos al Carbon" in the local Mexican/TexMex restaurants ("local" meaning Dallas Fort Worth Metroplex), and there is a MARKED shift to using fajitas in dishes they label as "al carbon." Fajitas and charcoal broiled beef are NOT the same thing, so I can only hope this is a DFW thing and not national or international. But not just the culinary language is in a state of serious corruption, it's across the board! Pity.

                    Oh, and just for the record, "carne asada" means roasted meat, whereas "al carbon" means charcoal broiled. I have had charcoal broiled carne asada, but I've also had roasted carne asada, and the meat forr asada is usually chopped into "chunks" while al carbon is usuall in strips. But again, the language and triditions are decaying!

                    1. re: Caroline1

                      Asada can mean =roasted, grilled, broiled
                      I am half spanish.
                      But yes I think it all depends where your at, and each region of Mexico has tiny differences, just like BBQ in Texas versus Kansas city, or Mississippi, etc. They are all BBQ and all from the U.S. but different. Here in Tucson and Phoenix and in Sonora Mexico if you ask for Carne asada you get the chopped up lilttle pieces of grilled steak and I do mean tiny...and if you get strips, then they usually grill some onions and bell peppers and call it a fajita.

                      1. re: vbutterfly72

                        For me, the biggest problem here is that fajitas are NOT a traditional Mexican dish in any state in Mexico. Fajitas are TexMex and of fairly recent origin. Latish last century? I'm verrrrrrry old <g> and have lived much of my life at various points along the Mexican border, and over the last three quarters of a century, and until recently (under a decade), "asada" specifically meant "grilled" or roasted without benefit of charcoal and "carbon" meant with charcoal.

                        I LOVE tacos al carbon, but when I order them in most Mexican or TexMex restaurants in my area, what I will be servied is tacos made with fajitas. I don't like fajitas! Show me ANY "authentic" and "traditional" MEXICAN recipe that calls for soy sauce and I'll gladly concede my point!

                        Semantics are important...! '-)

                        1. re: Caroline1

                          Soy and Maggi have been used in Baja CA Mx tacos for a while due to the long history of Japanese fishermen in the area. (see fish taco's). But if you taste soy sauce, you have used too much! Most American-mexican places marinade their meats to strongly. Really it should just have a strong beef flavor.

                          I do love skirt, I still remember the first time I tried prime skirt. Wow. For the most part I like sirloin for my taco's and skirt plated with a sauce, rice and beans or rolled and stuffed with guacamole like i had once in Ensenada.

                          1. re: AAQjr

                            Maggi is a frequent ingredient in Veracruz as is Salsa Inglesa (or is is Inglesia), which we know as Worchestershire sauce. And then there are the recipes that call for Knorr Suisse...;-)

                            I have seen recipes in Spanish language Mexican cookbooks (and the cooking mags on the Mexican news stands) showing up that use a small amount of soy sauce. Not so much in traditional dishes, of course, and not in a lot of the alta cocina recipes, but in recipes for more day-to-day consumption. When it is used, it's used for the salt content, not a flavoring

                            AAQjr is right about Americans over marinating the meat. If you watch a Mexican prepare meat that is to be grilled it goes into the marinade for 30 -45 minutes. Americans think they have to marinate overnight. Plus the Mexican version of the marinade for the meat will be much simpler, usually lime juice, sometimes some OJ, salt, pepper, some chopped garlic, perhaps a little chopped cilantro or some crumbled dried chile, but the objective is more to use the acid in the marinade to tenderize it rather than flavor it.

                            1. re: DiningDiva

                              mmmm, I need me some enchiladas suizas..

                              1. re: AAQjr

                                Check out your nearest Sanborn's for that one ;-)

                            2. re: AAQjr

                              I suspect that "long history" means a very different thing to me than it does to you. '-)

                              Japan was closed to the west during the "Sakoku" period, and it wasn't until the 1868 Meiiji Restoration that Japanese were allowed to "travel the water" to other countries, so before 1868 there were NO Japanese fishermen in Mexico. When I say "traditional" in connection with Mexican food, I mean recipes that go back hundreds of years. Local traditions of long ago. Soy sauce doesn't make it in my book. '-)

                              1. re: Caroline1

                                Well yes we have a very different idea of long history. I think it's silly to base your al carbon recipe by what was happening in Mx in 1850. There weren't much in the way of refrigerators back then either and I am not going to romanticize that either.

                                Btw.. there is evidence of soy beans in Mx as far back as 1585 by way of merchants from China.

                                1. re: AAQjr

                                  Citation please? I've checked the web for anything that indicates this and the closest I can find is this staement from Wiki: "The first reliable reference to the soybean in this region dates from Mexico in 1877." The URL:

                                  And thank you for telling me my ideas are silly. By your standards?

                                  1. re: Caroline1

                                    As you did to mine.

                                    The history of Soy beans in mexico and soy foods in Mexico and Central America. And 1877 is close enough to your dates.

                                    1. re: AAQjr

                                      You said: "Btw.. there is evidence of soy beans in Mx as far back as 1585 by way of merchants from China." And that is NOT close enough for "my dates." Not even close.

                                      THAT is the citation I'm asking for! You don't follow a conversation well at all, do you!

                                      1. re: Caroline1

                                        And that is the citation I gave you.. do you want the quote too? Here it is, from the above mentioned book:

                                        1585 – Mexico: Soybeans may have been introduced to
                                        the botanical garden at Acapulco by Chinese merchants
                                        traveling by Spanish galleon from Manila (Gonzalez de
                                        Mendoza 1588).

                                        You are the one who is not following..

                                        1. re: AAQjr

                                          I don't need this. You have NOT given the citation. You have given a quote, saying it is from "the above mentioned book." Mentioned by whom? I can find no above mentioned book from YOU, and I have even gone to your profile page and then read every post you have made in this thread. YOU do not mention a book. Are you referring to a book mentioned by someone else?

                                          Regarldess, don't bother answering. I'm through discussing this with you. I don't need the hassle.

                                          1. re: Caroline1

                                            sigh... the name of the book (mentioned by me) IS:

                                            'The history of Soy beans in mexico and soy foods in Mexico and Central America'

                                            Oh well, If you can't win, take your ball and run away.

                                2. re: Caroline1

                                  Actually I went to Bahia de Kino 3 weeks ago and was surprised to see soy sauce on all the tables of the taco shops, all over town. I have used soy sauce and ketchup believe it or not and rubbed it on my steaks for grilling , like a t-bone or rib-eye, and I swear it tastes incredible. of course don't forget the pepper.

                                  1. re: vbutterfly72

                                    Not al carbon, but pescado zarandeado - which is a fairly recent (as in the last 50 years) creation - has a goodly amount of soy sauce in it, and it's really good.

                                    1. re: DiningDiva

                                      Yeah my husband made me that recepie once when we went camping and he said he learned it from the fishermen in kino.

                                3. re: AAQjr

                                  Maggi is made by NESTLE which is all over the world

                          2. Hope this helps, you can see how thin the meat is, then you chop it up, with two cleavers into little pieces.

                            1. Yes, it's generic. It's like asking for an authentic American recipe for grilled chicken.