MEXICAN STREET TACOS: THE ELOTES GUY WOULD BE PROUD

We have already enriched your lives to the tune of several recipies (and historical primers) for classic gin cocktails. Now let us turn to the gastronomic soulmate of gin: the taco.

I want to emphasize two ironclad facts of taco preparation up front:

  • 1. Tacos are not easy to make (well). They appear to be rather simple, with only a few ingredients and limited preparation time. But the cooking process is deceptively tricky. My techniques were developed through extended trial-and-error, not to mention several batches of horrible tacos gone wrong.
  • 2. There is absolutely no way to make a healthy taco that doesn't taste like crap. Get over it in advance. This is not diet food. The preparation will involve beef fat rendered into liquid and copious amounts of corn oil.

    Taco Basics

    Tacos, like so many wonderful things in our lives, were invented out of necessity. As men and women worked in the fields in Mexico many years ago, wrapping meat and vegetable items in a tortilla had two advantages. It made the concoction edible quickly and with one hand without food falling all over the ground. Secondly, it could be made in the morning, wrapped, and stored for eating later in the day (today, this method of wrapping and storing a taco is considered a separate and distinct cooking method known as Tacos sudados – literally "sweaty tacos", which steam themselves into a soft consistency with time).

    There are dozens of kinds of tacos, each distinctly different, including al pastor (spit-grilled meat, usually pork, cooked similarly to the way gyros are prepared by slicing meat from a rotating hunk of lamb), carnitas (meat fried in lard with fruit), and dorados (flautas or "taquitos"). However, the type most commonly associated with Mexican food in America are tacos al carbon, or barbecued meats. As we will see, electric griddle preparation has largely replaced the open fire in most American taquerias. Being the most basic taco type, we will focus on this recipie here. The hard-shell Taco Bell-type tacos common in America are rarely eaten in Mexico.

    The first thing you need to do is start with a flank steak. Flank steak is not pretty. It has fat, and often connective tissue, attached to it. Our tendency in the grocery store is to select the nice red and fat-free piece of beef. This will result in a dry, flavorless taco. Suck it up and ask the nice butcher for a flank.

    flank.bmp

    The key to cooking any lower-quality piece of meat is preparation, either marinating, aging, or dry-rubbing. Home cooks will need to rely on marinating this particular cut. The essence of any meat marinade is something that will attack the meat and break its tissue down (an acid) and something to penetrate the meat and protecting its liquid content during the cooking process (an oil). Acid and oil. This is a marinade. Acid softens, oil retains the flavor (since the oil, not the meat's own water and fat, will burn away in the cooking process).

    Here is a good, basic marinade for tacos. I have found it to be effective for any meat. I also, as much as a white-ass Polack can verify these things, consider it to be, if not authentic, then at least plausible in terms of the ingredients.

  • 2 tablespoons of corn oil
  • 2 or 3 tablespoons of lime juice (I sincerely doubt they use vinegar as an acid in Mexico like most American recipies call for)
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced (fast mincing tip: peel the cloves and then just hit them with a heavy utensil)
  • 1 tsp ground coriander seed (grocery-store cumin is acceptable)
  • 1 seeded, chopped, and minced jalapeno pepper

    Mix these ingredients well. Toss the steak (whole) into your marinade dish. Turn it over once to coat it, then cover and let stand for 2-6 hours.

    Remove the steak and discard the marinade. Cut the flank into about 8 strips (approx 1/2" to 1" wide). Clean, peel, and dice one medium white potato (no red or Yukon Gold for these purposes), one more jalapeno (seeded), and one small yellow onion. So you have:

  • approx. 8 strips of steak
  • finely cubed potato, jalapeno, and onion mixed in a bowl, coated with a small amount of corn oil to facilitate cooking

    Now heat up an electric griddle to medium-high heat. A frying pan really isn't going to work. Sorry. Find me a taqueria where they prepare tacos in a frying pan. I recommend the Villaware electric (usually less than $50) because it has no "hot/cold spots" and is amazingly stick-resistant.

    Put a generous amount of corn oil (don't overdo it, but don't leave it dry) on the griddle and allow it to heat up. When everything starts sizzling, add the cubed potato-jalapeno-onion mix. Allow this to cook (stirring and tossing regularly) for 5-6 minutes. Look for the onion to start turning translucent. When done, either push it aside or (preferably) remove it to a bowl, covered in foil.

    Add the steak strips. Allow to cook (slightly brown) on each side. Remove the strips to a cutting board and dice into small cubes. The middle should still be pinkish. You are not done cooking the steak. Transfer the meat (with its accumulated juices, oil, and other gross shit) to a bowl and cover. Re-apply corn oil to the griddle if necessary and begin frying two small corn tortillas. Then take two big spoonfuls of the meat and a spoonful of the potato mixture and begin cooking them together next to the tortillas.

    Are you still with me? You're now frying two tortillas on one part of the griddle and the meat-potato mixture (which you've already cooked once) on the other. Cook long enough to cook the beef through if any of it is still pink/red when you start. Place one tortilla on top of the other and scoop the meat mixture on to the middle. Remove from the griddle.

    Congratulations, you've just made a taco. Repeat until satisfied.

    Garnishing tacos is a matter of personal taste. Authentic tacos will only be garnished with cilantro and onions (although anejo cheese, salsa and/or rice is also added in some traditional recipies). American-style tacos contain cheese, lettuce, and tomato in addition to other toppings. Do what makes you happy. The purpose of cooking is to eat something you enjoy. If you don't like the "authentic" toppings (I personally find cilantro to be too bitter) then put whatever the hell you want on them.

    The key to this recipie is the cooking/resting/re-cooking of the meat. Taquerias cook their meat in massive batches either late at night (for the next day) or in the morning. It then sits in a little tub of its own juices and is re-cooked before being applied to your tacos. This is gross, but it is also the reason your at-home tacos never taste quite like the taqueria.

    (note: Do not salt during the cooking process. While salt is commonly added to your tacos in any taqueria, doing so while cooking risks drying the meat out. Add salt immediately before eating if desired.)

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  • 8 Responses to “MEXICAN STREET TACOS: THE ELOTES GUY WOULD BE PROUD”

    1. Schneider Says:

      Skirt steak, not flank steak. I have half a pound in the fridge with your name on it pretty boy grad student.

    2. Dave Says:

      Skirt and flank are the same cut, genius. Flank is just a way of filleting the hindquarter skirt meat.

    3. Dave Says:

      Skirt and flank are the same cut, genius. Flank is just a way of filleting the hindquarter skirt meat.

    4. Schneider Says:

      Well, at least I'm man enough to admit when I'm wrong without silly name-calling. FYI, "pretty boy grad student" is a term of endearment, not silly name-calling.

    5. Dave Says:

      Then i retract my previous statement, except the bit where I wasn't being needlessly unpleasant. Drink makes me a bad man

    6. the mexicana who reads your site Says:

      Just a thought… For some authentic tacos you should also try replacing the oil for beer, tecate or corona will do. Soak steak in beer, lime, garlic, and onion marinade for an hour or two. You will see that the lime will start to cook the meet, but trust me it is yummy. Then grill your steak, don't fry it. This is that bad rap that Mexican food gets, it is actually quite healthy, but has become Americanized and thus introduce to the quick fix, oil heavy fry! Yuck!!!

      Garnish your tacos with cabbage, onion, and cilantro and a splash of lime; also if you can make some nice salsita you are good to go.

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    8. Chou Says:

      Oh man, your tacos recipe is seeeriously tempting! I've got to make some of my own! <3 <3