Carne asada may be your favorite kind of taco filling, but chances are that what you've had is overcooked, steamed, gristly beef garbage and definitely not the juicy, pristine, steak-like cuts that really make up Mexico's quintessential dish.
Blame the quickly rising cost of beef in the US, or simply blame the mediocre status quo of restaurant tacos in America. Unless you are grilling and know what you are doing at home, the sad reality is that carne asada has fallen a long way from its thick-cut, wood-grilled origins in northern Mexico.
This realization pissed off Esdras Ochoa so much that he quit his thriving career as a professional poker player and invested the small fortune he won from that in re-educating Angelenos on what a proper carne asada taco should be—first, with Mexicali Taco & Co in Los Angeles, and now with Salazar in the north LA neighborhood known as Frogtown.
Some of Ochoa's earliest memories are centered around weekends full of carne asada-based family gatherings in Mexicali, Mexico. In the same way that many other Mexican nationals who have a strong attachment to the dish. When he moved to LA in 2003 from the Mexican border city, he was heartbroken to find out what the words "carne asada" got you when it was your turn to order at the counter.
Although he sympathizes with the pioneering taqueros in the US before him and the impetus to sell tacos on the cheap—a.k.a. the $1 taco double-standard that turn a higher profit—he acknowledges that it is time that carne asada gets the respect that it deserves. "You used to be able to get away with anything back then," he tells me as he preps some bright red, beautifully marbled meat.
He is about to show me how to make a proper Mexicali-style carne asada, prepared according to his upbringing and lifelong passion for the humble dish.
He starts vigorously cleaning his Santa Maria grill and tends the uneven chunks of embering redwood that he uses to quickly grill the meat. He spills some more truth on me as he does that: "It used to be that there was this assumption that if a taco was made in a street here, it was automatically 'legit,' but the times have changed." Ochoa has come a long way in the ranks of the LA taco world, starting off in a taco cart in downtown before opening up a small brick-and-mortar a few blocks away, and then graduating into the 120-seat oasis at Salazar.
"I just want to show non-Mexicans the traditions of carne asada that I grew up," Ochoa says.
It all starts with the quality of the beef. He uses Creekstone Farms' chuck-roll, sliced one-fourth of an inch thick. The next crucial step is the marinade. His includes soy sauce, since Mexicali is known for its expansive Chinese population and influence in the city's cuisine, followed by a splash of dark Mexican beer, minced garlic, and some chunky salt sourced from the Sea of Cortéz.
Ochoa emphasizes the fact that you do not need to dump your entire spice pantry into the marinade for carne asada, and to be careful not to let it over-marinate. A day's worth of marinating is the max amount of time.
Once the mixture looks like it has been absorbed by the meat a little bit, it is ready to hit the grill. This is the part where most people mess up carne asada: overcooking it. "The trick is to just to do a quick sear when the grill is around 450 to 500 degrees. Once the juices of the meat start to flow over. It is time to flip it." He tells me this as he is actively flipping the meat. "Once the juices start to flow out from the other side, too, remove it immediately from the grill and you are good to go." He swears that good carne asada doesn't even need a squeeze of lime.
Still, a great carne asada is only as good as the accoutrements and side dishes that accompany it. Charred green onions, stewed beans, a good salsa, a purist guacamole (that consists of simply mashed, seasoned avocado), and a stack of tortillas are essential to the experience. At Salazar, Ochoa has this all covered with flying colors—including handmade flour tortillas made with local flour, which are the correct vehicle if you would like a more authentic, northern Mexican experience. If you are recreating the tradition of carne asada at home, it is recommended that you consider all of the sides before the meat hits the grill.
After the carne asada crash course was done, Ochoa sits down and says, "I've got to taste this!" He makes himself a taco, takes a huge bite, and based on his facial expression, still is in love with the familiar dish. Despite the fact that he has probably eaten more carne asada tacos in the last month since opening Salazar than he has his entire life.
"It is often the simplest things that are the hardest to properly cook," he says in between the bites of his bulging taco, like it's no big deal that he is single-handedly breaking the mold of crappy carne asada—one juicy taco at a time.