On The Range: Carne Asada

On The Range is a weekly exploration of the history and lore of Texas menu items.

If you think cookout in Texan terms, you are usually thinking of brisket...well, steak and burgers, too--but that's everywhere. If you think of grilling in Mexican terms, though, it's carne asada all the way.

That's right--skirt or flank steak (in most cases), marinated, broiled over (hopefully) a wood or charcoal fire, sliced thin across the grain and served with fresh, hot tortillas.

Food writer Derrick Riches reminds us that in Mexico, carne asada is not just a dish, it's a celebration.

"In Mexico and the American Southwest, you will find that Carne Asada is the Mexican equivalent of Barbecue. I mean that in the party sense of the word. Traditionally a large fire pit is used to prepare this party, but you can use whatever you have. Since everything is prepared over direct heat, you don't need a lid or a fancy grill. The cut of beef you use doesn't need to be fancy either."

Although celebrated author and chef Rick Bayless disagrees with Riches' choice of beef, preferring premium cuts such as bone-in rib eyes, he nevertheless echoes the idea of carne asada as party. "The perfect carne asada, in my opinion, is perfect because of the meat's role in the larger context of the perfect Mexican cookout meal." Apparently his editor had challenged him to use the word "perfect" as often as possible in one statement. "The grilled meat punctuates mouthfuls of tender beans, tangy-crunchy cactus salad, luxuriant guacamole, and spicy fresh tomato salsa. And to me, the meat fits into all this perfection"--that's four--"if it's cooked over live fire, tastes beefy, and has the right amount of chew--a judgment that's as personal as the right amount of spiciness."

Well, he missed a few perfect opportunities.

Both Bayless and Mexican food guru Diana Kennedy believe that carne asada tampiquena, the most popular version of the dish, was invented in the 1930's or 40's by Jose Loredo at the Tampico Club. Still, since cows have been around an awfully long time, those responsible for tending them on the range probably cooked up something close.

You can find carne asada easily enough. For example, Taqueria El Fuego in Richardson--a tiny, family-run place only open for breakfast and lunch. They serve it with rice, beans, and fresh corn or flour tortillas. However, a couple of caveats are in order. First, if you want their outstanding buffet instead of a fixed plate lunch, you should come on Saturdays as it's only offered that day. Also, you may have to purchase chips and salsa separately.

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