Summer Sizzler: Carne asada opens up a world of good eating

The Sacramento BeeMay 27, 2013 

No backyard cookout is complete without fresh-off-the-grill carne asada. This dish cooks easily, won't break the budget and requires just tortillas and a few other fixin's to make scrumptious tacos.

"When I barbecue, I invite friends over. We go outside and have a beer and bond," said Lisandro "Chando" 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 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.

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, who has two Chando's Tacos locations in Sacramento. "They tend to cut it thicker and then cut it in cubes after it comes off the grill. We've always gone for a thinnercut."

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 arrachera and palomilla trimmed to this size. Otherwise, have a butcher do this trimming.

Choosing a marinade comes next. This is where carne asada can take on all kinds of flavors: spicy interpretations with plenty of chili powder, aromatic paprika, citrus-rich 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 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.

Chando's carne asada marinade

This is a base recipe, so let your taste buds be the guide. Other ingredients to consider include: paprika, black pepper, chili powder, dried onion, garlic salt, soy sauce, slices of orange, and beer as a liquid base. This marinade is enough for 3 pounds of steak.


3 tablespoons seasoned salt

½ onion, sliced in rounds

¼ cup diced cilantro

½ cup orange juice


Cover the bottom of a container with a few slices of steak. Season with salt, top with a few slices of onion and cilantro, and drizzle enough orange juice to cover. Repeat this process with additional layers of steak. Marinate for two to three hours before grilling.

This recipe is from Lisandro "Chando" Madrigal.

Chando's guacamole

Serves 4


3 avocados

1 garlic clove, chopped fine

1 tomato, diced

¼ cup onion, diced

1 jalapeño pepper, diced (use half a jalapeño for a less spicy recipe)

2 tablespoons cilantro, chopped

Salt to taste


Cut avocados in half and remove pits. Scoop out avocado pulp and add to molcajete, or other mixing bowl, with garlic. Mash to desired thickness. Add remaining ingredients and combine. Add salt to taste, approximately ½ teaspoon.

This recipe is from Lisandro "Chando" Madrigal. He recommends using Roma tomatoes, which are less juicy than others, for this recipe.

Tomatillo salsa


2 pounds tomatillos

2 serrano peppers

1 clove garlic

1 tablespoon salt


Bring water in a saucepan to boil. Add tomatillos and cook for 5 minutes. Reduce heat to medium and add peppers and garlic and cook for 5 more minutes. In molcajete (mortar and pestle), mash garlic, then peppers. Add tomatoes one at a time and mash them. Add salt to taste. The salsa also can be made in a blender.

This recipe is from The Sacramento Bee.

Cebollitas grilled green onions

Serves 4


1 bunch green onions, plus ¼ cup chopped

1 tablespoon olive oil

Salt to season

2 tablespoons lime juice

Cilantro sprigs, for garnish

Lime wedges, for serving


Trim the root ends of the green onions and toss with a tablespoon of olive oil and salt, to season. Place the green onions on the grill and cook for 1 1/2 to 2 minutes, or until softened and slightly charred. Remove the onions from the grill and toss with the remaining 2 tablespoons of lime juice.

Garnish each plate with fresh cilantro sprigs and a lime wedge.

This recipe is from Emeril Lagasse at

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