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Much ado about Carne Asada

A recent post by ceviche really got me to thinking about carne asada.Why don't we have great versions in LA? What is carne asada?What are its forms and traditions? So, I've had a great number opportunities over the years to experience the best carne asada and parrillada in Mexico, in Sonora, and in the best region, northen Mexico.I was blown away though, when the group I was traveling with this past weekend in Leon, Guanajuato ordered arrachera from the room service menu at the Holiday Inn, of all places, and how good it was.The Holiday Inn in Leon has better carne asada than the best restaurants in LA?

During a food crawl recently with Kaire Raisu in Tijuana, we checked out some carne asada as I contemplated the common thread that made the best places so good.

Here is my field tested theory: Carne Asada doesn't have the social, traditional or commercial infrastructure in the US to replicate the quality and taste in Mexico.Carne asada the Mexico way would outprice the average carne asada consumer in the US.Due to economics and local US tradition, a cheap, fast food version of carne asada thrives amongst the mexican-american community and entrenched "norteamericanos".

Northern Mexico makes the best beef:Sonora, Chihuahua, Durango,Coahuila,Nuevo Leon, and Tamaulipas.But, the rest of Mexico fairs quite well, basically, quality beef is available throughout Mexico at a very accessible price for taco stands, taquerias, and restaurants alike.Restaurants advertise their Sonoran beef, and Benito Molina at Manzanilla in Ensenada even tells you the name of the ranch.We have cuts that approximate the arrachera here in the US, but now from the same cows nor are they cut the same way.Mexican butchers in the US do American cuts from US beef.Even latino markets in Los Angeles have ranchera, not arrachera.Arrachera can be cut with a fork,-tender, juicy, and sublime.The beef matters in Mexico's asada as it does in Argentina's parrilada, Brazil's churrasco, and Japan's kobe steak.

The forms:carne asada tacos, the individual cut, parrilladas(assorted grilled meats),vamipros,perrones(Rosarito), tortas,gringas,sopes, huaraches, mulitas,quesataco(Tijuana) and so many more concoctions.

Even in our neighboring Tijuana, the street taquerias and stands advertise the fine cuts like NY Steak and Arrachera.Many of the best stands and taquerias doing tacos grill with coal, wood or mezquite and use blends of fine cuts and regular cuts to make economically sound tacos of high quality.In Sonora, Tacos Jass uses NY, top siroin(palomilla), and diezmillo.In TJ, a taqueria on the eastside of town has a secret blend of several meats over coal, the style and presentatio is uniquely Tijuanense.The meat is grilled and chopped moments before serving.The parrilladas of Mexico and grilled and brought to your table on a brazier or a hot cast iron plate to keep warm, but are cooked on the grill.Sorry ceviche, they can touch the cast iron plate, just shouldn't be cooked on them.They can be served as whole cuts, in pieces, sliced, or chopped roughly for a taco.The cuts:NY steak, arrachera(favorite),cabreria(rib-eye),diezmillo,and palomilla are the most popular.The best versions are the taco, parrilada, and fine cut plate.In general, the more ingredients in the vehicle, the lower the quality of meat used, the American style burrito being the easiest way to serve cheap cuts as the taste comes from the conglomerate fillings.

The accompaniments are also important: flour tortillas(esp. those light Sonoran tortillas),queso fundido,salsas, a mixed salad with roasted chiles, tripas and costillas(ribs),refried beans sonoran or sinaloan style(infused with pork or chorizo and cheese),grilled onions and jalapenos,escabeche(pickled vegetables and chiles),baked potatoes, quesadillas de trigo,etc.This aesthetic exists throughout Mexico, carne asada isn't a fast food to be trivialized.Yeah, and they even got it right at the Holiday Inn in Mexico.

Until a Mexican steak restaurant in the form of Fogo de Chao, Mercado Buenos Aires emerges, or a taqueria/stand with the conviction of and sourcing of Mole La Tia comes forth willing to charge $3 for a carne asada taco of imported arrachera or NY steak, we are stuck with the fast food staek combo plate and ranchera from Costco street and truck tacos.We could have it here though, but it's goin' to cost you.Maybe some Sonorans here in LA will come forth and make it happen.

If you've survivied this far, here is the fun.A celebration of carne asada and a feast for the eyes.

Two parrilladas in Cd.Obregon, Sonora-Ny steak,arrachera,ribs, and tripas with tortillas Sonorenses
http://www.flickr.com/photos/15437927...
Arrachera, tripa,sonoran refried beans,sonoran tortillas,and a quesadilla(bitten!
)http://www.flickr.com/photos/15437927...
A prep at Tacos Jass in Hermosillo blends NY, top sirloin, and diezmillo.
http://www.flickr.com/photos/15437927...
Aged cabreria in Hermosillo,Sonora
http://www.flickr.com/photos/15437927...
Grilled arrachera-Tijuana,BCN
http://www.flickr.com/photos/15437927...
carne asada tacos made from blended cuts-Tijuana
http://www.flickr.com/photos/15437927...
Manning the grill in Tijuana
http://www.flickr.com/photos/15437927...
A NY steak and shrimp quesataco(taco with meats enveloped in a grilled-cheese wrapper)-Tijuana,BCN
http://www.flickr.com/photos/15437927...

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  1. stunning. i'm shocked that my dumb post helped inspire this ode to carne.

    seriously your post has got me thinking about the different cuts of meat, something i had never considered before. if el parian can sell their tacos for $2 or so a piece, why can't someone else sell tacos with really good meat for $3? if starbucks has shown us anything, it's that people are willing to pay a lot more than we think for what may or may not be superior quality product!

    1 Reply
    1. re: ceviche

      No your post wasn't dumb at all.You brock it down nice, and brought forth all the carne asada interests out there, the good, the bad, and the ugly.

      Well, if we could get some of our friends to stop accepting inferiority, we could do this.Again, it's just about having great food, not drawing lines.

    2. ok now you've really got me thinking about this...

      could part of the equation be where the cooks come from?

      in the US, most cooks are mexican, but most of those cooks seem to come from places like oaxaca, puebla and michoacan. not places that have deep carne asada traditions i'm guessing.

      at the holiday inn in Leon, the cook(s) who made your meal were likely locals from the area, an area that does a lot of carne asada. i doubt any cooks from oaxaca or puebla would go to the trouble of leaving their homes in search of better $$$ and settle in Leon rather than go to the US.

      maybe asking oaxacan/poblano cooks in the US to make carne asada correctly compounds the ingredients availability problem?

      as a side note: my wife and i were in Moroleon and Uriangato, GTO (near Leon) over thanksgiving and we were blown away by the delicious food EVERYWHERE. simple $5 comida corrida set menus absolutely blew away anything i've ever had in the US. even a simple buffet that our taxi driver recommended to us (lots of policemen and cab drivers eating there) was excellent, for about $4.50 total for two people, including beverages. insanity...

      4 Replies
      1. re: ceviche

        Well, the Bajio is the heartland of Mexico and yes, food is great all over.I know, I've been eyeing comida corrida on recent trips, just to see what they are serving and a loncheria in el Centro Historico in Leon was tempting.We had our comida corrida in a fonda at the mercado Soledad.Chile relleno with picadillo and albondigas with chiles gueros, perfect Mexican rice.Carnitas from heaven.

        Certainly Mexican line cooks are streaming in to the US but not restauranteurs and chefs.Chefs like Benito Molina and locations like Tacos Salceados thrive in Mexico due to an educated consumer.Why would they come here and have to hear, dude, where are the burritos and chips?Many Mexican restauranteurs here in LA have grown up here and have been removed from Mexican culture several generations only knowing dumbed down combo plates, burritos, and nachos.These foods are in the conscience of non-Latinos and Latinos alike.But, we are slowly turning the corner with places like Moles La Tia, La Casita, and Chichen Itza, places that wouldn't have stood a chance years ago.Angelenos are learning and exploring.Places like Mariscos Chente have been there all along, just under the radar.

        Leon has so many carne asada places, many featuring the style of nearby Monterey, and it is in cattle country as well.Carne asada is done well all over Mexico due to its place in culture.At backyard berbeques here in the US we do dogs and burgers, in Mexico it's carne asada.I went to a family function in Aguascalientes:carne asada, grilled nopal, homemade salsa, a salad, handmade tortillas, and quesadillas nortenas.

        The problem here is the restauranteur opening a place to make money, not food, and the consumer, raised on canned salsa, oversized burritos, and the value combo plate.

        And yes, the ingredients problem, and who will eat them if they stock the items.Mariscos Chente won't bring in callos from Mazatlan for fear of them rotting.People want the burritos and cheap cocktails, and think they're being ripped off if they're paying more than $10 for Mexican.They'll overlook callos done superbly and then go to the Water Grill and pay 2 times as much for an inferior raw seafood.As the great Eat_Nopal once asked, have you ordered these items? The real gastronomy of Mexico.

        1. re: ceviche

          s.g.l.a. called it perfectly.
          It will be very tough to overcome entrenched consumer And corporate mindsets And the dwindling supply of quality beef.
          - 'Mericans have been programmed to want cheap and 'clean' (Taco Hell). Or at least clean (El Torito).
          - Large corporate chains are a brick wall - they have their formula and they are sticking to it. I had a long, infuriating, blood pressure raising email dialogue with a Chipotle 'advocate' who made this very clear. No amount of persuasion would convince them to add freshly made soft corn tortillas (!!!), chopped white onion and cilantro for tacos or to substitute decent Mexican style hot sauces or even 'home made' salsas for bottled Tabasco. Mexican Grill my a**. Grrrrrr.
          - As long as feed lot beef *cough*Harris Ranch*cough* is the standard, we're not making progress on the supply side.

          I guess we have to start at the grass roots. Persuade smaller chains like Hows, Gelsons or Bristol Farms that they should try to get arrachera. Heck, maybe even sample it on the weekend.
          Use the meat to make home made tacos for your more enlighted friends. Start a new carne asada movement!

          1. re: DiveFan

            I think there were some Mexican beef companies at the Expo Comida Latina that had arrachera, but haven't found distributors yet.

            I've had my own personal protest against carne asada here in LA, until recently it was more subconscious.There are always better options on the menu, or when the best thing on the menu is a ranchera combo plate I'm out.

            Well, years ago all we had were combo plate joints, and now we're doing pretty good.We just need a Sonoran with tripas to come forward and lay it on us.You've got it right Divefan, just keep exposing people to the good stuff and slowly we'll create a movement.I would love to see the end of industrial food production, fast food chains, and food products.

            The boys at La Casita in Bell had to convince the Mexicans in Bell that their food WAS Mexican, and have kept the menu very accessible to survive.But, the locals have adjusted and keep comin' back for more.It can happen.

          2. re: ceviche

            Actually, if you ask anyone that's Mexican, they will say the best cuisine in all of Mexico comes from Puebla.. Oaxaca, not so much but Puebla.. No mames! They are especially known for mole poblano and barbacoa, carne asada is just a staple throughout the country, not one state makes it better or worse. I've heard that West coast food is horrible in comparison to east coast food in America.. you just have to know where to go to get it :) this applies to mexico too

          3. well until others join in, it looks like this is going to be our place to discuss carne asada.

            you mentioned the cast iron plate, and you're totally right. being SERVED in the cast iron plate helps keep the carne hot, so that the last taco isn't cold and dry. it's when they COOK it in the cast iron skillet (or in a saute pan, griddle, etc) that it develops that *other* character. my favorite place in phoenix is a sonoran place, and they bring out their parilladas on what appear to be foil-topped hibachis, with coals inside (i think).

            note to any enterprising restauranteurs in the future who use this thread (or the LA board thread) as a springboard to carne asada stardom: don't forget to give me and street free meals for life!!!

            -----
            Asadero Norte De Sonora
            122 N 16th St, Phoenix, AZ 85034

            3 Replies
            1. re: ceviche

              Here's a great beef producer in Hermosillo,Sonora,Rancho El 17.Looking at the cuts makes you hungry!
              http://www.ranchoel17.com/ingles/prod...

            2. I recently discovered a wonderful cut called "flap meat". I made some carne asada and it was much better than skirt steak.

              What's the equivalent name in Mexico?

              2 Replies
              1. re: bkhuna

                I don't think there is a flap meat equivalent in Mexico, but apparently El Parian uses this for their carne asada.It's a better choice than ranchera, more thickness.I would use flap over skirt, too.They are both from the same part of the steer.

                1. re: bkhuna

                  The "flap meat" which you reference is the 'inside' cut of the skirt. It comes from the same cut of meat as skirt, but is typically a larger piece of meat. The small, compact and thin ends of the cut are absolutely tender and much better than the outside skirt which is thicker. The bottom line for any asada is to remove all of the 'silver skin', cook directly over searing coals and under cook the meat.

                2. If the eyeballs are not cooked with the meat, you can't expect to get the full flavor.

                  4 Replies
                  1. re: Savorytart

                    i've never heard of cooking the eyeballs with the meat. are they like placed alongside the meat, on the grill? how do they flavor the meat? are they placed on top of foil to keep them from falling through the grates? what region of mexico is this from?

                    1. re: ceviche

                      Eyeballs? This is not a practice in Mexico.

                      Anyways, ceviche, another CA experience from Friday night in Tijuana.This was taken at a simple taqueria that also does parrilladas, the owners and cooks are from Sonora.Even though arrachera was available, I went with the top sirloin(palomilla), a cut very much available in the States, eventhough from US beef, is doable if an LA establishment was willing.Hint!!

                      Strips of grilled top sirloin with tripas, a queso fundido, and sweet onions
                      http://www.flickr.com/photos/15437927...
                      frijoles charros(cowboy beans), worth the price of admission alone
                      http://www.flickr.com/photos/15437927...
                      pico de gallo con nopal, chiles toreados, and rabanos(radishes
                      )http://www.flickr.com/photos/15437927...

                      Cut into strips, ceviche style.

                      1. re: streetgourmetla

                        The aged ribeye photo is my new Myspace background. Thank you.

                        The recent tragic crime wave in northern Mexico might lead some people from that area to move to the US... people who can cook great carne asada and customers who will demand it.

                        Here's the photo I selected. Great wallpaper for carnivores!

                        http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3377/3...

                      2. re: ceviche

                        Well, you'll have to tell that to the people from Mexico who were cooking utilizing them. It wasn't a joke being played.