Tuesday, September 21, 2010

For Unlawful Carne asada Knowledge-Mexicali Taco & Co. Takes Los Angeles

An aged rib eye steak is purchased by weight at Sonora Steak in Hermosillo, where locally raised Angus is famous all over Mexico.

Carne asada is perhaps the most misunderstood filling for a Taco here in Los Angeles. There’s hardly a stand or truck that doesn’t have asada on their menu. Yet, in my quest for authentic carne asada here in Los Angeles, I’ve come up empty.

In Mexico, it is also found in every state in some form, and the scent of the streets at night is full of the aroma of charred meat, but carne asada is a northern specialty. You won’t find asada on the streets of Mexico City, and asada isn’t significant in other southern states. Throughout states like Sonora, Sinaloa, Baja California, Durango.Chihuahua, Nuevo Leon, Tamaulipas, and Coahuila carne asada is vibrant and exciting.

Taco Kiko fires the grill in the hotel zone of Mexico's carne asada capitol, Hermosillo, Sonora. The night air fills with searing flesh and mesquite. The streets of Hermosillo are a carne asada cook off every night.

In Los Angeles, carne asada is the least common denominator, inexpensive skirt steak purchased at Costco, Smart and Final, or some other poor source, cooked on a flat top, wrapped in a store bought tortilla with dull salsas. Mexican-Americans and non-latinos alike indiscriminately choose taco trucks with the only criteria being that it costs a buck.

The verb asar means to roast. Meat cooked on a flat iron is not roasted, hence isn’t carne asada. In Mexico this is called bistec. Carne asada is cooked over mesquite, flame roasted. The marinade is simple: rock salt, lime, and mesquite. Carne asada is found at stands, taquerias, and large dining rooms that serve parrilladas(grilled meats brought to the table on hot plates or braziers) and paquetes(package meals). In each of these settings, mesquite is the engine that fires up the traditional flavors of northern carne asada. It must be present.

At Xochimilco, also in Hermosillo, the team of roasters cooks behind a thick pane of glass allowing for a more formal carne asada experience in the Mexican style steakhouses of the north.

Carne asada is a specialty. The taqueros that prepare the meat only cook carne asada. A small stand can have one taquero preparing and cooking the meat, with an assistant or two for customer service. A taqueria will have a team of taqueros, one to three men to roast the steak over open flames, a taquero or two to chop and plate the tacos, a counter man, and maybe some other taqueros doing other disciplines, maybe al pastor/adobada, fritanga(fried meats and offal in a stainless steel comal),or birria. In the large restaurants that serve parrilladas, there will be a bunch of guys trapped in a hot, smoky room piling on the grilled steaks and offal for the mob of hungry carnivores in the restaurant.

The meat is special and the cut is of paramount importance. In Sonora, where I believe the best carne asada tradition exists, it’s all about the cuts of meat. There is no ranchera. The prized arrachera is about the most prestigious cut, a lower skirt steak that is supple and juicy. Every country has a different way of taking apart a steer, so even though the skirt steak is similar, it’s not the same. Palomilla(top sirloin), New York, diezmillo(chuck), aguayon(sirloin), cabreria(rib-eye), lomo(loin), pulpa(round), and many more. Blends are used like at Tacos Jass in Hermosillo, Sonora, where the house steak blend for carne asada is comprised of palomilla, New York steak, and diezmillo. The taquero should be able to tell you the cut, and why he chooses that particular slice of meat, or blend.

Tijuana style tacos of carne asada at Taqueria El Poblano are a blend of New York steak, top sirloin, round, and chuck.A dollop of creamy Baja style guacamole seals in the flavors.

The meat should be high quality, not discounted meat that will go bad in a day, just so you can come in at a dollar. In Sonora, locally raised Angus beef is inexpensive and yes, a taco of carne asada is still between 10 and 12 pesos, a little under a dollar. At taqueria El Poblano in Tijuana, a blend of New York steak, pulpa, palomilla, and chuleta de lomo(T-bone) allows them to come in at around a dollar per taco.

In the US, real carne asada taco cannot be realized at the dollar price point, and grilling with mesquite can only happen in a restaurant. A quality cut or blend must be roasted on a mesquite fire, placed on a quality home-made flour or corn tortilla, and either dressed by the taquero, con todo(with everything), or by the customer. Recently made tortillas from a tortilleria are okay too, called recien hecha. The only way you can hit the dollar mark is with cheap,dull and dry ranchera, store bought tortillas, and basic condiment.

A whole cut of juicy cabreria, rib eye, is the house specialty at El Dorado in Hermosillo, Sonora.

Condiments include a variety of roasted, fresh chili, and dried chili salsas. Onions, lime, and cilantro are standard.

In the Mexican style steakhouses you can order trios of beef cuts with all the accompaniments: frijoles puercos(refried beans with pork lard) or maneados(Sonoran style refried beans with cheese and pork chorizo), stewed cowboy beans, grilled onions, salad, tortillas like the sobaqueras(large,ultra thin flour tortillas) of Sonora, roasted chiles, and whatever else come with the house paquete, or package. At this style of eatery, you make your own tacos of carne asada. At Xochimilco restaurant in Hermosillo, you can get paquetes(packets) of three meats like arrachera, ribs, and tripas de leche(milk soaked tripe), or sirloin in the place of arrachera .Other Mexican style steakhouses offer cuts, or both. At a nearby steakhouse a little ways away in Hermosillo called El Dorado, rib eye,or cabreria, is the house specialty.

Braziers are brought to your table at Mr. Steak in Ciudad Obregon,Sonora, loaded with arrachera(skirt),ribs,tripe that was pre-soaked with milk, covered by the amazing sobaqueras, thin flour tortillas native to the state of Sonora.

We have restaurants in LA that have whole cuts of carne asada, but they are most often broiled. But just as one should look for Hidalgans when seeking out barbacoa, I look for Sonorans, or Baja Californians when looking for carne asada. I haven’t come across one Sonoran run restaurant, truck, or stand, and maybe just a few Tijuanans preparing carne asada.

So, I’ve been looking here in Los Angeles for a carne asada taco priced over a dollar, like a minimum of $1.75, at least. We have no real specialists doing carne asada tacos, and no Mexican steakhouses with indoor mesquite grills.

While working with Ricky of Ricky’s Fish Tacos at Street Food Mondays, he said he knew some guys that were from Baja, specifically Mexicali, that were doing some great tacos and that he’d be going over there the next day or so and that I should definitely check it out. When I asked what kind, he said carne asada, you know, typical Mexicali style tacos. I said I’d love to go with him sometime, but would be tied up for several days. I had forgotten about the Mexicali Taco & Co. when I saw their twitter handle first appear, and they seemed to be popular already with many in Twitterville. Wait a minute….I wonder what kind of meat they use? An unrequited tweet on the eve of September 7th, left me no choice but to go and see for myself.
@MEXICALItacoCO muchachos. K corte de carnes traen pa asada? Tienen mesquite? Toy muriendo a comer una verdadera carne asada. Saludos

Mexicali and Calexico raised Javier and Esdras have been around for a little over a year, and they are tearing up the internet. They have been super hyped for their carne asada tacos and other taco stylings, but truth be told, they might be the only game in town for the real deal.

The first night out I had a chance to be these affable young guys in action, they are perfect for this business, and really care about the customer’s experience. It was apparent that these weren’t professional taqueros, but they’ve got something on every other stand and truck in town. They’re from the north and know carne asada. They’ve been eating these tacos all of their lives. They know it should be quality steak, and that it has to be cooked over fire. Los Angeles won’t let them do mesquite, so they use a gas fire on their grill. I tell you, the mesquite is such an important element of the flavor of carne asada, but these guys have everything else in place. I commented that everyone else is doing asada on a flat top, Esdras laughed,” Yeah, that’s bistec, not asada.” And, there you have it, seems simple enough. In Mexico this is basic common knowledge just like how much to bribe a cop for getting caught with an open container. I call on all trucks and stands that cook steak on a flat top to rename their carne asada as bistec. Truth in advertising.

Their salsas are nice, and they have carne asada, grilled chicken, and chorizo for their tacos. They make that wonderful creamy guacamole that is served all over Baja California, although it could stand a little more pop, and just a slightly thicker texture. Otherwise, I really like their guacamole, be sure to generously load your tacos with this to make it Baja style.

The meat is diezmillo(chuck), but is fresher and juicier than other places. Using higher ingredients is the real game changer here. At $2, the taco of carne asada here is a steal. The guys were talking about Mexican style arrachera(skirt), not that thin and flavorless ranchera garbage, but a nice flabby cut of steak. Uh, I would even rather pay $3 for that, go ahead Javier and Esdras, you’ve got my vote.

These guys can only get better with time. It just goes to show that a young and relatively inexperienced pair of nortenos can walk in and slay every other taco joint in town. I call them the Golden State of taco stands. They love good food, and just want to make it great just like when they were kids, no matter what. Other taqueros around don’t have the courage or knowledge to serve $2 carne asada tacos. This could be the start of a revolution.

Dreamy, creamy, Baja-style guacamole.

Their carne asada taco is the best place to start. The chopping needs a little work, maybe keeping a sharper knife? But, man, the flavor and texture are beefy, and juicy. The taco is heightened by the addition of that creamy guacamole, and their tasty salsas.

The cachetada(slap), has a chipotle aioli sauce, a little street taco flair. This is really a vampiro, but Mexicali Taco & Co. is an original, and certainly, a traditional vampiro wouldn’t have a chipotle aioli. Chipotle is always a winner, top with some salsa and guacamole and enjoy sensations of crunch, salt, and sweet.

Esdras recommended the grilled chicken with the vampiro, in this case named because of the addition of garlic. This would be a like a quesataco. It has melted cheese infused with garlic, and the chicken is very tasty, I wouldn’t underestimate this choice of protein. The Mexicali Taco Co’s vampiro is one of my favorite tacos at this stand.

I saw someone else eating a Zuperman, which is Mexicali Taco Co’s version of a mulita, a taco sandwich. It looked great. Everything is fantastic at Mexicali Taco Co.

Esdras and Javier run a solid stand, and they’re bringing the only true carne asada in town, to the best of my knowledge. They will only get better, and perhaps they’ll find a way to cook with mesquite? Lesser miracles have happened. Mexicali Taco & Co is up Wednesday thru Sunday, carne asada is here! Thanks Ricky, not only are you one of the best taqueros in town, you’re also a real foodie, too.

Mexicali Taco & Co.
1st and Beaudry
Downtown Los Angeles
8pm-12 am


wb said...

Another great piece about the art of tacos! The whole "I won't pay more than a dollar thing" is ridiculous, as the background on asada you give here proves. I haven't tried these guys out yet (although I plan to), but the best asada I've had--grilled over coals--was outside of La Mascota. You order and the two women running the stand start in: a ball of masa pulled out of a cooler, pressed and dropped on the coma. A skirt steak pull off the grill and chopped. The whole process takes less than a minute, it seems, and the taco is one of the best I've had anywhere. The smoke flavor is seriously missed in anything cooked bistec-style.

Food GPS said...

I drive past 2nd & Beaudry several times a week. Little did I know that just a block away, Mexicali Taco has been tearing it up. That carne asada is inevitable now, tonight!

streetgourmetla said...

Hey wb-Which La Mascota? And, was it that mysterious ranchera? The skinny skirt? I'd imagine so, which means they had the mesquite, or charcoal flavor on cheap meat. But, you like it, so, I'll keep an eye out. Thanks.

As always, FoodGPS, doesn't hesitate.

mattatouille said...

i want tacos el poblano. nice piece

wb said...

It was the La Mascota Bakery on Whittier, in Boyle Heights. They don't always have tacos out front, but I believe they're usually set up on weekends. It certainly looked like skirt, but likely the skinny variety--nothing like that aged rib eye pictured. Still, even for a cheap cut, I find skirt to have a good amount of flavor, especially some with mesquite char.

mattatouille said...

love the whole story of carne asada. steingarten-esque my friend. enjoyed Mexicali tonight though you are right about the texture of the cuts. Flavors are good but I expect that mesquite was bring it up a big notch. I'll definitely be back. Good point about $2 tacos - I'd be willing to pay more for better quality.

Anonymous said...

Great article Bill ..
really enjoyed the pics and
the description .
thanks for the support .
Esdras 8a

streetgourmetla said...

Mattatouille-thanks! Yes, we can enjoy the dollar tacos in Mexico, but here, we should be willing to pay for a better taco. Bistec is for the birds! Yeah, damn health dept!Stay away from our tacos,hehe. Mesquite raises the flavor to a whole other level.

Esdras-You're welcome, and keep up the great work. Impressive!

Lorena said...

In Sonora:

El Leñador; tacos de asada, rib eye, parrilladas, the most delicious costillas ever, huge Salsas bar with chiltepin, nopales, guacamoles, pickled garlic, etc. (El Leñador is right next to the University of Sonora and is way better than Xochmilco).

In Rosarito:

Tacos el Yaqui or Tacos el Gerente; only one thing on the menu: perrones which is a juicy marinated arrachera taco in a toasty flour tortilla with or without cheese, beans, salsa fresca, guacamole, onions, cilantro and chile de arbol salsa.

(for the location, just go to Rosarito and ask anyone on the street where Yaqui or Gerente is)

streetgourmetla said...

Lorena-Hello,thanks for your input. Those are both great spots.

Everyone seems to have there favorites in Hermosillo. I love El Lenador, their salsa bar is too die for, too. I think I've been to just about every steak house in Hermosillo, so many delicious places. Xochimilco is the place people first hear about, and I think El Lenador is better too, but didn't have any pictures from my meal there:)

Xochimilco is still great though.

I've also been to El Yaqui for perrones, and have started to see perrones in Tijuana. El Yaqui is an institution, a delicious taco. It's Rosarito's proud contribution to the taco genre.

jvr said...

as you can probably imagine, i heartily endorse this posting.

Anonymous said...

Loved this article-- thanks Bill! Definitely very insightful, especially for someone like me who is a taco aficionado but needs to learn more about the history and origins of the meats/preparations. likely will stop by tonight, camera in hand. :)

streetgourmetla said...

Thanks jvr-Carne asada til our arteries clog!

Effindericious-Taco aficionados are some of my favorite people. Tell me how it went!

Anonymous said...


I've stopped by Mexicali a few times now and have had everything they've had to offer numerous times over, and I'm convinced they, along with Leos on La Brea, are my favorite taco stands in LA.

Javi and Esdras really are great down-to-earth dudes making an honest living serving some awesome food.

Ps. saw you at Gold Standard yesterday, but you were busy with someone else, so I didn't say hi but definitely a big fan of this blog and looking forward to more of your LA finds.

streetgourmetla said...

Effindericious-You're not wrong, these two places are killing it.

Thanks a million, and please don't hesitate to stop by and say hello next time.

Anonymous said...

hi Esdras and Javier,
I finally got to read this beautiful blog and I am so proud of you guys!!! You can get my vote! I am sure of that.. wow! long time no see guys, hopefully this week i can come by and have some of your delish tacos!! you guys have to try this if some of you haven't.. come down and try it! its the best tacos you can taste in l.a.
its you kumare!!ezmy

Anonymous said...

Hey Bill-- its me again. Just wanted to circle back and say thanks for the recommendation on Mexicali and share a piece i just wrote about how they got around to starting the stand.


Hope all is well!


Unknown said...

Alguien sabe si estos vatos sirven tacos en lechuga en vez de tortuga?

Unknown said...

Asadero acatlan or asadero LA tormenta Del desierto both in Mexicali Baja California are the best in Baja.