Bottle of Corona in hand, Lisandro "Chando" Madrigal flips some carne asada that sizzles on his backyard grill. Homemade tortillas, Jarritos sodas, grilled onions and salsas are all on standby. It's a savory-smelling preview to Cinco de Mayo, which arrives Sunday, the perfect opportunity for a Mexican-style barbecue.
No backyard Mexican cookout is complete without some tasty, fresh-off-the-grill carne asada. This dish cooks easily, won't break the budget and requires just tortillas and a few other Mexican fixin's to make scrumptious tacos.
As grill marks sear into these sirloin and skirt steaks, we pepper Madrigal with questions. After all, he's a master of grilling this marinated beef. Madrigal's known simply as "Chando" among fans of local Mexican food, and carne asada tacos are the runaway favorite of his two Chando's Tacos locations and his popular food truck. It's also a signature dish for his backyard cookouts.
"When I barbecue, I invite friends over, we go outside and have a beer and bond," said Madrigal. "And what's not to like about flame-grilled steak? You can make tacos and dress it up with some salsa, guacamole or onions. Or you can just experiment. The flavor is just awesome."
Mexican meat markets, or carnicerias, traditionally carry plenty of pre-marinated carne asada at their butcher counters. Add some of that to a hot grill, and tacos await in just minutes. Preparing your own carne asada doesn't take a ton of work either, and you can create a house speciality that'll be a hit every grilling season.
But it all has to start with some meat.
The term carne asada refers to a cooking process rather than a specific steak. Carne asada translates to "roasted meat" though if you're cooking directly over flames, the meat's actually being grilled.
Carne asada styles vary by region in Mexico. This dish is found more prominently in Mexico's northern and western states, where cattle raising is fairly prominent. Carne asada is a special source of regional pride in the northern Mexican state of Sonora.
"Here in the United States, you have Texas, but (in Mexico) Sonora is the one that sticks its chest out with barbecued meats," said Madrigal. "They tend to cut it thicker and then cut it in cubes after it comes off the grill. We've always gone for a thinner cut."
Most cuts of steak will technically do for this dish, whether it's a humongous chuck roll or well-marbled rib-eye. But two cuts of steak still reign supreme for carne asada: arrachera and palomilla.
Arrachera is the Spanish term for "skirt steak," while palomilla translates to "sirloin." Either of these cuts are well-suited to soak in marinades and provide plenty of meaty flavor. Arrachera and palomilla are also fairly affordable, which makes them a good option when grilling for a large backyard cookout.
No matter which steak you choose, it should be sliced thinly. If you're making tacos, the meat should be thin enough so it can be pulled apart easily with your fingers. Mexican meat markets traditionally have aracherra and palomilla trimmed to this size. Otherwise, have a butcher do this trimming if you'd rather leave the knife work for someone else.
Choosing a marinade comes next. And here's where carne asada can take on all kinds of flavors: spicy interpretations with plenty of chili powder, aromatic paprika, citrus-y styles with lime or orange juice, a liquid base of beer and more.
Mexican meat markets generally sell plenty of carne asada preparada, or pre-marinated. This might save work in the kitchen, but the flavors can be overwhelming if the meat has been soaking for an extended period of time in a store. Salsas and other condiments added to these carne asada tacos will drown out much of the meaty flavor.
Madrigal recommends a more sparing approach to marinating.
"Just a couple hours is good," he said. "You don't want the meat to be in there for too long. You're going to want to be able to taste the meat."
Orange juice remains a go-to base for Madrigal's carne asada marinades. It helps tenderize the steak and imparts bright flavors. He also likes to use beer, but finds that it breaks down the meat quicker than orange juice. Madrigal sometimes opts to pour some beer over the carne asada as it's grilling, as his father liked to do.
Once Madrigal gathers his marinade ingredients, he uses a layering approach for applying them to the carne asada. He'll start by placing a few cuts of steak at the bottom of a Tupperware container, add an even coating of salt and apply enough marinade ingredients to cover the meat. Then he stacks another layer of meat and continues the process until all the carne asada is coated.
"I like a simple marinade, not something too crazy," said Madrigal, showing off his carne asada that's ready to cook.
Back outside, Madrigal's grill is fired up and ready. His 5-year-old daughter, Xitlali, hovers close by, ready to taste-test. Carne asada, after all, cooks pretty quickly.
A mantra of backyard grilling says that, "the thinner the meat, the higher the heat," and this is especially true of carne asada. Madrigal is using a gas grill for time's sake on this day, but a mix of charcoal and mesquite would be ideal. Mesquite burns especially hot and also kisses the meat with a pleasing smoky flavor.
Madrigal adds a few cuts of his carne asada to the grill and the sizzling starts right away. Once the meat turns color and becomes crispy on the edges, it's time to flip it over. It doesn't take much more than a few minutes per side to cook until medium-well.
"You want it on the hottest part of the grill, and spread it evenly so it's not bunched up," he said. "You're not looking to make grill marks per se, but you want the steak to be cooked completely."
Madrigal adds peppers, green onions and a chorizo link to the grill as the carne asada finishes cooking. But one of the key elements of this fiesta waits inside: fresh tortillas.
"Good tortillas are important," said Madrigal. "You wouldn't want to eat a good sandwich with lousy bread. You might as well be eating cardboard."
We're spoiled on this day that Madrigal's mother, Paula, is visiting from the San Diego area. The Madrigal family once ran a tortilla factory in Tijuana, and Madrigal's mom is a maestra of making them from scratch. Her tortillas are a little thicker than what's usually found in a restaurant. They're perfectly pillowy with a taste of fresh corn and a touch of salt.
For a store-bought tortilla, look for the El Rosal and Mi Abuelita brands, which make an especially soft product. The tortillas made by La Esperanza, which oversees a fantastic Mexican bakery on Franklin Boulevard, are also a reliable option.
Finally, it's time to grub with a spread that includes two different salsas, guacamole, beans and rice and much more. Madrigal encourages everyone to just grab a tortilla, pull the carne asada apart with their fingers and start building delicious tacos.
"You want to taste the meat, the guacamole, the tortilla," said Madrigal, ready to dig in. "You don't want to taste one thing. If you stick with some basic Mexican ingredients you can make just about anything you want and you have to have your Corona or Jarritos."
Where to find the right beef
Whether you're looking for pre-marinated carne asada or the building blocks for your own Cinco de Mayo barbecue, these Mexican markets will have you covered. You'll find plenty of skirt steaks and sirloin for making carne asada and ingredients for your side dishes as well. Here are some of our favorites:
Carniceria Lopez Market No. 2 (6201 Franklin Blvd., Sacramento; 916-393-5957): This small market carries pre-marinated arrachera (skirt steak) and palomilla (sirloin) that's exceptionally tasty, plus an array of other meats, Mexican cheeses and a small produce section.
Toledo's Mexican Market (1341 Fulton Ave., Sacramento; 916-979-9227): On the north side of town, you'll find this carniceria well stocked with meats and prepared foods to go, including tacos and salsas.
La Superior Market (4940 Stockton Blvd., Sacramento; 916-451-7259): Like the Safeway of Mexican markets, this supermercado is a one-stop shop with a huge butcher counter, produce section and wide selection of Mexican ingredients. Also look for a location at 2210 Northgate Blvd.
Slideshow: Madgrigal's marinated steak becomes succulent carne asada
Recipe: Chando's carne asada marinade
Recipe: Cebollitas (grilled green onions)
Recipe: Chando's guacamole
Recipe: Salsa ranchera and Tomatillo salsa
Call The Bee's Chris Macias (916) 321-1253. Follow him on Twitter @chris_macias.