Lighting up the grill on a summer afternoon or evening allows you to prepare bold and engaging dishes that suit the steamy weather. Standard off-the-grill foods like hot dogs, burgers, veggie skewers, and chicken are always welcome seasonal entrees, but if you're looking for an alternative with bright flavors, a juicy and tender texture, and plenty of versatility, then carne asada could be a perfect fit. This style of cooked beef particularly shines when it's tucked into a tortilla and topped off with taco garnishes and a drizzle of lime juice. Read on to find out exactly what "carne asada" entails, how to grill a tasty version at home, and how to make the best-possible carne asada tacos.
"Carne asada, generally speaking, means 'grilled meat' in Spanish," says chef, butcher, and founder Sebastian Cortez of Sebastian & Co. Meats. While this description covers carne asada's literal translation, executive chef Edgar Escalante of Dirty Habit in Washington, D.C. delves into how carne asada typically shows up in recipes and on menus: "Carne asada is meat that has been marinated and grilled at high temperatures so the meat stays juicy, but still has a charred and smoky flavor."
In the United States, carne asada always refers to beef--specifically, to steak. Our consulted chefs agree that thinner cuts of beef absorb marinades more effectively and are easier to char on the grill. Specifically, Cortez says that he likes to use "skirt steak, also known as 'arrachera' in Mexico. It's a thin steak with an abundance of marbling, making it easy to grill and fantastic when marinated." If you can't find skirt steak, Escalante tells us that "flank or hanger" steak are also good options for carne asada.
Carne Asada at Home
For home cooks, carne asada serves as both an easy protein to prepare and a massively flavorful one. Essentially, the entire process comes down to marinating the steak, quickly grilling it, letting it rest, and slicing it. Because carne asada is typically made with skirt steak or another thin and lower-fat cut, the grilling process is remarkably short, as executive chef Katsuji Tanabe of A'Verde Cocina and Tequila Library in Cary, North Carolina tells us: "My grandmother calls carne asada 'ballerina style' [steak] because you cook it for three seconds, flip it, and cook it for another three seconds."
When it comes to prepping a marinade, Escalante likes to keep his recipe simple: "My go-to ingredients are chilies to make the meat richer and juicier, lime juice, salt, and fish juice--and don't forget a cerveza! " Ultimately, any mixture of acid, salt, umami, and spices can be used to marinate carne asada, but 3 parts of oil (olive oil or, if you prefer, a neutral oil like canola or vegetable) to 1 part acid (lime juice is an effective acid for carne asada) is a tried-and-true ratio. Then, you can add spices (like chili powder or cumin) and salt to taste. Because skirt steak and flank steak are thin cuts, they can absorb marinade quickly; you can marinate the steak for a little as 30 minutes, but if you want a more potent flavor throughout the meat, marinate for up to 24 hours. Take care not to prolong the process beyond one day, though; the acids in the marinade can wear down on the meat over time, and after 24 hours of marinating, you may notice a tougher texture in the cooked meat.
Cortez says that "I generally like to grill [carne asada] to a medium-rare temperature." After allowing the meat to rest for 5-10 minutes, "cut it into small pieces." If you'd like to infuse the meat with more flavor, you can toss it into a skillet of salsa rojo or salsa verde and simmer on medium-low for a minute or two to allow the flavors of the sauce to soak into the meat.
Tortillas for Carne Asada
Carne asada makes for a delicious entree on its own, but serving it in a taco really highlights its savory flavor and blend of seasonings. "Carne asada tacos have pretty much everything you are looking for in a dish. Sweetness, sourness, bitterness and saltiness--everything you need to create perfect umami in every bite. Of course, you also need a good tortilla," insists Escalante.
When it comes to choosing the right tortillas for your carne asada tacos, soft tortillas (rather than crunchy taco shells) are recommended. You can either use corn tortillas (which is the preferred option in much of Mexico and in the carne asada hotspot of Southern California), or you can try flour tortillas (commonly used in Northern Mexico and Texas). Regardless of the tortilla style you prefer, do not skimp on quality. "It's important to find good tortillas and to add fat or oil to them to reheat them on the grill," says Tanabe. If your local supermarket only carries mass-market tortilla brands, check with local Mexican restaurants to see if they'll sell tortillas, or seek out a Latin/Mexican market in your area.
Ultimately, you can top your carne asada tacos with any sauces, chopped veggies, cheeses, or herbs you prefer. That said, our pro chefs have some specific suggestions for the best way to enjoy carne asada in taco form.
Cortez likes to keep his carne asada tacos simple and street-food-style, garnished with just "fresh onions, cilantro, and a squeeze of lime." Tanabe prefers to bring some heat and sweetness with "spicy salsa and grilled onions." As for Escalante, he adds richness and creaminess to the tacos by drizzling "salsa verde with avocado" over the carne asada.
The recipe below is courtesy of BBQ Guys.
Grilled Carne Asada Tacos by Brad Prose
- 2 pound flank steak
- 1/2 cup orange juice
- 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 3 tablespoons BBQGuys x Spiceology Beef Rub
- 1/2 cup diced white onion
- 1/2 cup diced cilantro
- 1 cup salsa
- 12 corn tortillas
- Place the flank steak in a re-sealable plastic bag. Pour in the orange juice, lime juice, and salt. Mix everything around and remove as much air as possible before sealing the bag shut. Allow the steak to marinate in the fridge for at least 2 hours, up to overnight.
- Preheat a grill for direct grilling of at least 450°F. Clean the grates as needed.
- Remove the steak from the bag and pat it dry. Apply the BBQGuys x Spiceology Beef Rub generously on both sides, patting the seasoning into the meat.
- Grill the steak directly over the coals. Flip every 2 minutes, building a nice crust on the outside. Clean the grates as needed between flips. Cook until the meat is about 10 degrees before target temperature, 125-130°F for a target of medium-rare.
- Allow the meat to rest on a baking sheet with loosely tented foil for about 10 minutes. Dice up the onion and cilantro while the steak is resting.
- Warm up the tortillas and serve the tacos with the cubed steak, toppings, and salsa. Cheers!