Taco Bell? I Think Not – How Good An Authentic Carne Asada Taco Can Make You Feel

Normally we wouldn’t post a recipe for something as everyday as a steak taco. Most people know how to make them, right? But how many take the time to cook them really, really well? It actually doesn’t take much longer to make them more authentic. I’m not being a food snob here, I’m just talking from experience. I’ve made my fare share of ground-beef tacos or over-cooked cubes-of-steak tacos. But since we’ve been united with, made out and fallen in love with our seasoned, heavy-duty, cast-iron skillet, we’ll never be the same. We’ve fallen under its spell and will never return to the old way of cooking steak inside the home. Of course, an outside grill is the second best way to cook a steak!

Perfect Steak Tacos with Rajas and Tomatillo Salsa

Since we’re always on the search for the traditional and authentic, we really wanted to do the steak taco justice. In Mexico street food is rampant, fresh and delicious. You won’t see Old El Paso pre-made, fried taco shells, pre-packaged “taco seasoning” or over-salted ground beef plopped in the middle of the tortilla. The meat, veggies or fish and toppings are fresh and the food is cheap. Carne asada (grilled steak) is one of the most popular dishes of many parts of Northern Mexico. It’s synonymous with barbecue – the verb, not the noun version as is often used in America to describe the sweet sauce brushed on various bits of meat and poultry. Even more interesting is that “a carne asada” or “una carne asada” in Mexico also refers to the party/social gathering/event surrounding the making of the actual meal. I think that’s pretty kick-ass. I feel like Mexicans always find a good reason to party! They’ve got tequila AND ‘una carne asada’!

You may also be interested to know that tacos have been around for a long time. No, I mean a really long time. Like, longer than a Britney Spears marriage (cheap shot and bad joke, I know). A Spanish soldier named Bernal Diaz del Castillo wrote about the taco in the 1500’s but he’s not the inventor of the delicious, utensil-less, portable meal. Anthropologists discovered evidence that those who lived in the lake region of the Valley of Mexico made tacos filled with fish (hey, they lived by a lake). In other parts of Mexico, tacos were filled with live insects, locusts and/or snails. Fillings were determined by what was local and available, same as many other culture’s meals, except America, of course. Today, this still holds true. Although you may not find many taco stands selling insect or locust tacos, fillings will be different depending on the geographical region you are eating them in.

The first taco recipe found in America comes from a California cookbook published in 1914 called “California-Mexican Spanish Cook Book“. The recipe went as follows:

The tacos are made by putting chopped cooked beef and chili sauce in tortilla made of meal and flour; folded, edges sealed together with egg; fried in deep fat, chile sauce served over it.

Very different from what the Mexicans and Americans look at as tacos today. The above quote seems more like a tortilla empanada or chimichanga? A real, traditional carne asada taco will always be pretty bland and never spicy. The meat, usually finely cut flank or skirt steak, Perfect Steak for Tacosshould be seasoned only with some salt because the delicious flavor of the beef is what is to be tasted. No cumin, no chili powder – nothing but salt. The spiciness and other flavor comes from the various toppings you can put on your carne asada. Salsas, chopped white onion and cilantro are just a few traditional toppings. This dish is also traditionally made with corn tortillas, although we (ok, I) forgot to pick some up on my grocery trip and I couldn’t be arsed going back to the store.

For our toppings we decided to make another popular Mexican condiment, rajas. As the great Rick Bayless puts it, rajas is “a true-blooded Mexican classic”. The word rajas is spanish for strips and in Mexico that means strips of chile. In parts of central and northen Mexico poblanos grow everywhere, so rajas will feature the poblano chile. Again, just like with the fillings of tacos being determined by the geographic location, so is the rajas topping. Poblano peppers are dark green in color and don’t have much of a spiciness to them. In parts of California these peppers are called “passillas” and in Mexico, “chile verde”. You may have heard of ancho chiles, well these are poblano’s in their dried form. The rajas are basically made of onion, roasted poblano, some garlic and herbs. Ok, now on to the recipe!

Charring a Poblano + Roasted Pobano Pepper = Blackened Poblano

STEAK TACOS WITH RAJAS AND SALSA VERDE (Tomatillo Salsa) – serves 3-4

Ingredients for Steak

  • 3 pounds steak (preferably skirt or flank
  • Salt
  • Corn or flour tortillas (corn preferable)
  • Optional toppings: avocado slices, lime juice, crema/sour cream, thinly sliced cabbage, diced onion, jalapenos, scallions etc

Ingredients for Rajas:

  • 2 poblano peppers, roasted, skin removed and thinly sliced
  • Optional and not traditional: yellow or orange pepper, thinly sliced
  • 1 onion, thinly sliced
  • oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • pinch of oregano ,thyme (optional)
  • salt

Ingredients for Salsa Verde (Tomatillo Salsa)

  • 3 – 4 tomatillos, husk removed, washed and roasted in oven
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 scallion, sliced
  • Handful of fresh cilantro
  • Lime juice
  • Pinch of salt
  • Optional: Roasted spicy pepper like habenero or Serrano, minced

What to do:

  1. Heat oven to 475. When oven comes up to temperature, add your tomatillos and allow to roast whole for 10-15 minutes until soft and slightly browned.
  2. Salt your steak on both sides. Roast your poblano pepper by placing pepper directly on the open flame of your gas stove turning frequently. You will do this until the skin is blistered and blackened all over the chile. Remove and place a towel over it until it cools.
  3. Remove tomatillos from oven and make salsa verde by placing all the ingredients in a food processor or blender and blend until smooth. Taste for seasoning by adding salt and extra lime juice if necessary.
  4. Now, make the rajas by heating up a skillet till red hot. Add some oil and first saute your onions and yellow pepper (if using). Allow to sauté for 4 to 5 minutes and then add the garlic. Allow to sauté for another minute or two. Finally, add the roasted poblano pepper and sauté for 30 seconds. Remove all to a plate.
  5. In the same skillet, not adding any extra oil, add your steak. This process should be QUICK. We like our steak really pink inside – medium rare. For a thin piece of steak, this will mean cooking each side for about 3 to 4 minutes per side. If worse comes to worse, UNDERCOOK it and then make a little slice in it. You can always cook it a bit more, but never take back the cooking time on an overcooked piece of steak.
  6. Remove steak and allow to rest for 5 minutes. Meanwhile, heat up your tortillas. If using flour, heat in dry skillet for a few moments on each side and wrap in a towel. Or, microwave for 20 seconds wrapped in a towel. If using corn tortillas, you should fry them a bit in some oil in the skillet. You don’t want them crispy, just pliable and cooked.
  7. Cut your steak on the bias against the lines of the steak so you get a clean cut. Assemble your tacos by putting all the various toppings you’d like on each! ENJOY.

Perfect Steak Tacos with Rajas and Tomatillo Salsa - Fixings


23 thoughts on “Taco Bell? I Think Not – How Good An Authentic Carne Asada Taco Can Make You Feel

  1. Rita – what’s your fear of uncooked cabbage? HA HA HA… this is funny. If it’s just a bit and thinly sliced, it adds a crunch. Have you been seeing a therapist to get to the root of your fear? Get on it, Rita!! FACE YOUR FEAR OF CABBAGE!

    Courtney, Marie and Emiline – thanks for the props! courtney – you’re right… these aren’t your typical American tacos! Emiline – yeah on the salsa verde… easy, right? we actually used our leftovers for a snack the next day with some tortilla chips. Yum.

  2. Hi Amy, I just stumbled on your blog while visiting some others …. Carne Asada is my most favorite summertime dish, I never make it in the winter because I don’t have a cast iron skillet. I have to say, I’m a little intimidated by the thought of the whole seasoning process….maybe you could offer me some tips on that!

    I absolutely love Rick Bayless and all of his cookbooks. I went to hear him speak at a bookstore last time he was in town. Have you ever made his Cowboy Beans? I think they’re in the cookbook with the green cover. Anyway, they are TO DIE FOR; I always make them when I do fish tacos on the grill. I can’t wait for summer!

  3. how is that i’ve never heard of rajas? as a mexican food aficionado, i’m deeply ashamed.
    that being said, i agree that the time and labor involved in making your own taco, burritos, enchiladas, and the like is well worth it!

  4. I’m glad you posted this as well – because I didn’t really realize you could get such wonderful looking steak from a cast iron skillet! Perhaps silly of me, but I figured you always had to grill it or it just wouldn’t be very good. I’m quite happy to know otherwise. I am definitely going to try this soon!

  5. Thanks, guys for all the great comments and questions. Ellie – if you can’t get tomatillos, you could roast some regular tomatoes in the oven and follow the same recipe for the salsa. You’ll have a smooth red salsa vs. a green. It won’t be sweet, so I think I would add a bit extra garlic and def. use a hot pepper. You could also make a pico de gallo (which is a chunky salsa) by chopping tomatoes, cucumber, onion, scallions, jalapeno/serrano and adding a bit of olive oil and lime juice, cilantro and salt and pepper. We also add some red or black beans to ours. It almost becomes a healthy side dish too! Good Luck!!!

  6. I always thought carne asada required a citric marinade, but now that I’ve read some more about it, it would appear not to be the case. You learn something new everyday! These look great and its always amazing how “simple” food, when made with love and care at home, can easily become something awesome. I always think these sorts of things are the best when you’re informally entertaining, not because its easy to prepare, but because people have come to expect things like burgers, tacos, pizza, etc to just be crap…and when it actually tastes like something, you’ll have blown their mind! lol

  7. i’m mexican and i approve your article on tacos de carne asada
    kudosss keep it up
    btw i also loveeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeed your soju article too XD

  8. Sounds delicious except for the cabbage Nummers, I think I would be happy with the corn toritilla some meat and some green salsa, then Im good to go.. and keep em coming 😀 Carm

  9. Interesting post, and totally delicious tacos and condiments! This is right up my alley. I LOVE salsa verde but I’ve never tried making it. Must rectify that situation.

  10. I highly appreciate how you preserve and acknowledge various cultures through history and food. To make this authenticity even better, I kindly suggest you add the proper, orthographic accents to the following words: “Díaz” and “jalapeños”. Without these accents, they are considered misspelled.

    Thank you for the recipe; it looks delicious!

  11. thank you, memoria. you’re SO right. the problem is, i need to write my posts in word and then transfer it over. doing it in our wordpress template makes that more difficult… but i’m aware that it’s not right. thanks for the reminder!

  12. hey, i’m mexican (totally) and i just wanna say that i’m really proud of you 🙂 and i appreciate your effort to make our tacos de carne asada; so, to make them more…mexican i give you advices: you can take out the lettuce(or cabbage), tomato and the cream (or mayonese, i don’t know whay you put it on the taco :S)…instead, you can use pickled onion and cilantro, add lemon juice (just a little) and some salsa verde, guacamole or rajas poblanas, i promisse you’ll love it 🙂

    *a secret to cook the best guacamoles is:
    use soft avocados (2 or 3 days after you buy them, keep them out of the fridge), when they are really soft, they’re perfect…chop up about 5 tbsp of onion (for 2 avocados) and 1 jalapeño (if you like really spicy…if not, just use a half), chop them up in really tiny cubes…then, in a bowl, put the avocado’s pulp (don’t throw the seeds up, you’ll need them after) and mash it with a fork, use some water (just about 1 oz.,maybe less), then add the onion, jalapeño and some lemon juice; keep mashing until the avocado has the conscistency of mashed potatoes (if you need, use more water, don’t use too much…if you do, you can mash another avocado), finally, put the avocado’s seeds inside the guacamole, it will help to not became dark…
    please, if you have any questions, let me know 🙂 ENJOY!

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