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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 :-)

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  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.

                  http://video.on.nytimes.com/?fr_story...

                  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...

                      http://i10.photobucket.com/albums/a15...

                      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