We’re doing this thing again! Zach, Vince, and I have gone head-to-head-to-head on BLTs and mac & cheese, now we’re brawling over beef tacos. Whose will reign supreme? This one looks close. What we do know is that, as it stands now, Vince is way ahead on the leader board:
Things are looking grim for our dear food editor. Can he finally eek out a win with barbacoa? Will Zach surge into the lead with ground chuck? Or will Vince pull further ahead with shredded beef? It’s up to you, the commentariat, as we begin round three of this battle for the ages.
— Steve Bramucci, editor Uproxx Life
VINCE’S CAL-MEX TABLE TACO
My philosophy here was simple: I’m not going to out-authentico anyone — I didn’t do a study abroad in Jalisco, I didn’t learn any ancient recipes from a nice abuela in Guadalajara — so why try. I have strong opinions about most things, but the taco is one area where if we disagree I won’t necessarily say it’s because you’re wrong and bad and you do bad things. I’ve had 20 – 50 different types of street and taco truck tacos — carne asada, al pastor, fish, carnitas, birria, lengua, buche, tripas, etc — all varying degrees of wonderful. If you’d rather have one of those than this, I’m not going to say you’re necessarily wrong.
My guiding principle here was that when I make tacos at home, I like to make what I can’t get at a taco truck, and when I go to a taco truck, I like to get what I can’t make at home. Makes sense, right? Thus I chose the king-sized, semi-crunchy, shredded beef taco with lettuce. This was the standard restaurant-style taco I grew up with in the Central Valley, so this is basically me trying to recreate a favorite food memory.
On top of that, it’s made entirely of very cheap, basic ingredients, which seems true to what a taco is supposed to be.
Some of you are going to ding me for using shredded beef instead of carne asada, and don’t get me wrong, I love a grilled, marinated flap, flank (pounded), or skirt steak. But for my money, a meat that’s been stewing or braising all day beats a grilled meat every time. There’s just so much more time to get it juicy and tender.
I used a bottom round roast that I cut into big cubes and seasoned with salt, pepper, and MSG, and left overnight to dry brine. Sure, you could use a fattier, more expensive piece of meat, like short rib or brisket or something, but that kind of seems like cheating. Also, it’s kind of a waste, and for me just doesn’t have quite the right taste or texture (short rib is one of my favorite things ever, but I’d rather serve it over polenta or potatoes than in a taco).
1-2 pounds beef round roast (seasoned with salt, pepper, MSG, left overnight)
Whatever chiles I had lying around (in this case, New Mexicos, Negros, Guajillos, Chile De Arbol — dry — red jalapeños and serranos — fresh, toasted first). About 2-3 of each.
Garlic (a fistful)
Bay leaves (1)
1 can fire-roasted diced tomatoes
It looks like kind of a lot of ingredients, but it’s really easy. First I put my fresh jalapeños and serranos in the toaster oven to give them a little char (cut slits in the serranos first, otherwise they’ll explode). Then I toasted the dry chiles on a hot cast iron pan (toasting brings out the oils). Then I browned my meat in the pot (my big Lodge ceramic-lined cast iron dutch oven that weighs about 15 pounds) as hot as it will get. I got a little char on each side and then set the meat aside. I did the same with the soup bones.
One great thing about a meat that you’re going to braise forever: you don’t have to do much chopping. I chopped the onions into about eighths and threw them into the meat grease to brown. The garlic cloves I just threw in whole (if your garlic cloves start to get more char that’s okay — Mexican cooking tends to utilize more char than European). I sauteed that down until the onions were translucent, like eight minutes. After that, I deglazed with about four cups of stock and added the dry chiles. The stock picks up all the charred meat bits on the bottom of the pot, and the chiles rehydrate in the stock (as with all de-glazing, basically). That mixture looks like this:
After that, I nestled in my meat, and added the tomatoes and bay leaf.
I left that to simmer on low heat for as long as possible. The longer the better — all the connective tissue in that lean beef has to break down, the marrow from the soup bones has to render, and all the chiles have to rehydrate and break down and all those flavors and fat mix together. That’s my favorite part. I let this one go about five and half hours. By the time it’s done, the sauce is a deep red and the meat falls apart with just a fork.
I strained and reserved all that sauce, both because I can add it to the meat to get my ideal juiciness level (really juicy) and use it to cook my rice in. Here’s what the meat looks like before I start adding juice back in:
After that I add in about two ladles of the braising liquid. Mmmm. If you’re not ready to make tacos after five hours of braising, you can set it aside. Best way to reheat it, in my opinion, is to set it in a glass bowl over some boiling water, like a double-boiler kind of a situation. Or just put it down your pants for a few hours and warm it with your sex. Either way.
As the old taco saying goes, the filling is only half the battle, or maybe less than that.
Shredded Beef Filling
Yellow Corn Tortillas (fried, hence the oil)
Pico De Gallo (basic recipe here)
Shredded Romaine Lettuce
Crumbled Cotija or Queso Fresco
I’ll probably be dinged for not making my tortillas fresh. That’s fair. But here’s the thing: I’m not that good at it. My attempts at home made tortillas taste nice and they’re great as an accompaniment, but I’m not good enough to get them as big and as flexible as I want for this taco. Plus, if you get a nice tortilla (I think these were from the Tortilla Factory, who seem to make a pretty good tortilla) and treat it right, it’s still pretty fantastic.
I filled the bottom of my wok (it’s a good pan for frying) with about two inches of avocado oil (use whatever — the avocado has a nice flavor and a high smoke point though), and then heat it up to almost smoking. Then I dredged my tortilla in it, back and forth, not until it gets shattery and hard, like a taco bell crunchy taco, but short of that, to where it’s crisp but also a little pliable. I try to fold it over while I’m dredging to give it a nice U shape for filling.
t should bubble on the outside, like your mom’s thigh skin.
Pico De Gallo
You can put pretty much any salsa you like on this taco, but I use pico for one because I love it, and for two because it combines your fresh tomatoes and your salsa in one go (I also really like chile de arbol salsa for beef tacos). I’ve covered the basic recipe already here, and the only thing I do differently when I know the salsa is going in a taco (as opposed to on a chip) is that I up the jalapeño and cilantro ratios (because a taco salsa needs a lot of heat, and green herbs go great with beef, a la chimichurri). For this I used about one small jalapeño (toasted and de-seeded) for each tomato (camparis, in this case). If you ate it with chips your scalp would be sweating after two bites.
Yes, most places in Mexico I’ve been use cabbage. This is a California-Mexican taco, so I use lettuce, which is true to the tacos I had growing up. It’s really not that different, the crunch is a little lighter, the taste is a little nicer (in my opinion). I used romaine and shredded it into extra fine ribbons (it’s just better for construction that way).
I don’t think this matters that much, you can use anything from jack to cheddar to quesadilla to Oaxaca to that Mexican blend out of a package and it all tastes great. I like the crumbly stuff because it looks nicer and maybe adds a deeper, hard cheese flavor, however subtle. For this I used cotija that I pre-crumbled in my food processor. About two tablespoons per taco.
Not necessary, but hell, why not. The only time I’ve ever objected to avocado was when it was cooked. Never cook an avocado, man, they’re perfect the way they are. Avocados are nature’s lard (with all due respect to yr mom).
You put the meat in the bottom. Crazy, right? I think this is what’s going to separate me from my competitors.
With this kind of taco, you want it nice and juicy, so that it drips all over the plate (and your single tortilla should be able to handle it without breaking because you fried it first). It’s best eaten over some rice, so that the rice soaks up all your taco drippings. Or at least that’s the way I’ve always done it. When I was eating this one I dripped some of the juice on my dog’s head.
I’ll say it one final time: I realize this taco is very Americanized. Compared to your average Mexico street taco, it’s maximalist. This kind of taco is to a regular street taco sort of what deep dish Chicago-style pizza is to thin crust (though not nearly as excessive, because Midwesterners don’t seem to have any cuisine that doesn’t start with a pound of raw sausage — your mom would love it).
But damn it, it’s delicious. Juicy shredded beef, crunchy fresh lettuce and salsa, sharp cheese, creamy avocado, all wrapped in a chewy-crispy, moist tortilla. I could honestly eat these every day. It’s a decent amount of red meat, but otherwise they’re not terribly unhealthy. The meat is lean, it’s full of fresh raw produce, gluten free if you care about such things, and the tortilla has absorbed probably a teaspoon or so worth of oil, which some people say is good for you anyway.
Zach on Vince’s Taco:
I can’t really say I wouldn’t eat the shit out of this taco. Any complaints would be very Tom Colicchio nitpciking. Like, why didn’t you sear off the meat first and maybe the avocado is superfuluous or more cheese (!)… Okay, I guess I would prefer more cheese and lose the avocado, there’s no need for two fats there. Still though, it’s as solid a taco as I’d expect from a white boy from Fresno who grew up in taco-truck-landia.
[Vince’s Note: I did sear off the meat first, you dingus. Say what you will about Fresno, many of us can actually read. As for your avocado criticism… eh, I can’t dispute that too much. It doesn’t need it need it. It’s great without.]
Steve on Vince’s Taco:
Yeah, what do you complain about here? Where in the world would this not be recognizeable as a “pretty awesome beef taco”? But here’s my question that you’ll all surely roll your eyes at: Are there any big ideas here? Maybe we don’t get to ask that of a taco, maybe big ideas are for other dishes, maybe ideas are what spoils something classic… Would I eat it: Absolutely. Would I tell everyone I know about it? Not so sure. I want a little strangeness with my food. Clever twists. Riffs.
Which is probably why my taco will get disqualified before the judging even starts.
[Vince’s Note: Too normal for you, Steve? Spoken like a man who puts carrots in his mac and cheese.]
ZACH’S CAFETERIA TACO TUESDAY THROWBACK
Remember that scene near the end of Ratatouille when (spoiler alert) the food critic tastes Remy’s ratatouille and it takes him back to his childhood and all the warmth, love, and sense memories — tugging at our cold, cynical heart strings? Yeah, let’s do that with this taco.
Growing up in the great Pacific Northwest the fast-casual-kinda-hole-in-the-wall “Mexican” restaurant was an institution. It still is actually. They’re named El Sarape or Puerto Vallarta Breeze or Aztec something or other. It was really Tex-Mex and Cali-Mex all the way. The only item on the menu that represented “Mexican” cuisine was the tequila and the overly sugary margaritas being pumped out of a frozen drink machine. As much as current foodies love to shit on Tex-Mex, it’s still a real cuisine that was derived from Mexican migrants (and in many cases from Mexicans who were left behind after America’s occupation of huge swaths of Mexico in 1848), and thereby has real roots in that culture. It’s also interesting that people are less likely to shit on Cali-Mex, that is burritos, than they are of refried beans and hard shell tacos.
Hard shell tacos were the lifeblood of many a 70s and 80s meal from the Taco Tuesday elementary school cafeteria to mom’s build-your-own-taco night. So, I chose to go with a heightened version of those Old El Paso meals that were a proud cornerstone of the great American life in suburbia.
1 + 1/3 cup Vegetable Broth
Half a red onion, finely diced
2 cloves of garlic, mashed
Glug of Olive Oil
Pico de gallo
Half a red onion, finely diced
Fistfull of cilantro, finely chopped
8-10 Pickled Jalapenos, chopped
Monterey Jack Cheese, finely grated
Corn Tortillas (Yes, I bought some from a Mexican supermarket. No, I don’t think you HAVE to make them from scratch everytime)
Three slices of high-quality bacon for frying the tortillas
I use a nice heavy bottomed pot on a fairly high heat to sweat the onion and garlic in the olive oil with a large pinch of sea salt. I then add in the extra 1/3 cup of vegetable broth and let that cook completely off. This makes the onion and garlic super soft so that it completely breaks down into the meat during the next process. With the heat still on high, add in your beef by pinching off a bit at a time (insert Vince joke here). You don’t want to lose the pan’s heat. Generously salt and pepper. Use a wooden spoon to continue breaking up the ground meat until you have the grainy texture to the beef, no lumps!
As soon as the beef is cooked through, you need to push it to the side of the pan and drain all the fat you can. I generally use a spoon to skim it out. After you’ve done that add all the spices to the exposed part of your pan. You need to cook those spices through before you mix them into the meat. Once done, add in the cup of veg broth and the juice of a lime and put a lid on it. Let the meat simmer until the liquid is basically gone and the meat binds together slightly. This should take about 20-ish minutes.
While the meat is simmering away. Dice up your ingredients for the pico. I used a pickled jalapeno here to give it a more Tex-Mex feeling than the usual habernero I’d use in a classic pico. Otherwise it’s super straight forward. Tomato, onion, cilantro, jalapeno, sea salt punch, and the juice of two limes. Mix. Let rest in the fridge. Simple.
Next I grated the Jack cheese. Since hard shell tacos are a Cali-Mex innovation, I thought using a medium hard cheese that was invented in California by Mexican Catholic monks made sense overall to the theme and taste. The cheese has a nice mild sharpness to it that’s cheesy without being over-whelming.
Sort through your lettuce leaves. Don’t just hack up whatever comes off the head first. Get rid of blemished leaves and find some nice and firm leaves that will provide a bit of crunch. I then wash them and salt them and let them rest for ten-ish minutes. It adds a bit of texture and brings out the flavors.
So, once the broth is cooked all the way down but the meat still has plenty of juiciness to it, then it’s time to let the meat rest for at least 10 minutes. I use this time to render the fat from the strips of bacon and fry the corn tortillas into a crunchy shell. Generally, I use a tactic I learned haunting a Tijuana taco truck for a week. It’s basically to fry the tortilla until it just turns crispy on both sides, drain on the side of the skillet, and serve. The edges should be crispy, but the middle is still a little soft. So there’s crunch, but it’s not only crunch, and you can still fold it.
Add in your meat, cheese, lettuce, and pico. Serve. Overall, the taco shell should have a nice crunch and deep pork edge, the meat is a mild blend of Tex-Mex flavors that’ll take you back a step to the 80s which allows the mild Monterey Jack to counterpoint the acidity and heat of the pico. It’s what you remember, but taken up a rung or two on the old culinary ladder.
Steve on Zach’s Taco:
The shit talking this round kind of sucks. I’m going to have to make some big mistakes and open myself to a few classic “your mom” jokes or sh*t’s gonna get boring. C’mon man, the Pacific Northwest plate taco? That’s my sweet spot. I still cook that bi-weekly. Also, you have a great trick: Every time I want to be like “jack cheese is boring” you do write in some “monks invented this while the U.S. was busy stealing Mexico” line. My nitpicks here are going to be spice (not enough), lime (too much), and the one ultimate problem: When you go basic, you can only be amazing at being basic. This looks amazing, but it’s going to have a hard time getting crowned as “best” with pickled jalapeños from a can.
Vince on Zach’s Taco:
I suppose I can’t ding you too hard for trying to recreate a childhood classic, since that’s essentially what I did, but… ground meat? Don’t get me wrong, I love a Jack in the Box taco at 2 am, but this is basically a Jack in the Box taco. Save the ground meat for patties. I’d still eat the shit out of this, but there’s no world where you’d offer me the choice of stewed, grilled, or ground meat in a taco and I’d choose the ground meat. Using ground meat in a taco and pickled jalapeños in your salsa is like cutting your foot off before you run the 100-yard dash. You’ve beaten yourself! Didn’t your mother tell you about that?
STEVE’S BARBACOA ROSARITO BEACH TACO
My concept for this one was threefold:
1. Stop f*cking losing.
2. Pay homage to the street tacos in Rosarito Beach, a little surf town just over the border from San Diego, where I believe some of the best Mexican food in the world can be found.
3. Keep this helpful tweet in mind and try not to screw it all up by being overly fancy.
I decided to make a barbacoa taco, with a few touches picked up from Rosarito. Of course, I got a little weird, because that’s apparently my thing.
One other tweak: In the two previous challenges, I had people over to eat. That meant I had to get things ready on a clock and couldn’t obsess over details. This time, I cooked for myself, solo. Which was a litttttttle sad, but I made enough leftovers to run the whole meal back for friends the next night.
I thought about doing carne asada, but here’s the rub: the butchery near my house sells a famous carne asada. It comes up in conversations with chefs and normal folk alike, across the county. The only thing I do to modify their asada is add pineapple for the last day of marinating, which means my version would have likely been an imitation and a poor one at best.
Doing slow-cooker beef proved to be a win for me, because it allowed me to indulge my weird impulses in one pot. In doing so, I was able to have my fun and then keep things relatively simple for the rest of the dish. That said: The braising liquid I cooked the meat in was admittedly insane…but everything made sense.
- Beef — round roast, cubed.
- Acids and alcohol to tenderized the meat: Pineapple, rum, cola, apple cider vinegar. CALM YOURSELVES. All of those flavors are routinely used to tenderize meat. The flavors are all fine together. I cook with a lot of spice, you want that sugar from the Coke in there to offset it (I didn’t use a ton, I promise).
- Spices for flavor: chili powder, mole paste, cumin, paprika, nutmeg.
- Veggies & fresh herbs: Garlic, onions, celery, thyme, dried chilies, fresh chilies
- Beef broth.
I seared off the meat then slow cooked it in that mix for hours. Six, to be exact. I was eating alone, so I had time to burn.
Like Vince, I shredded the beef. Then I put it back in the pan with a little bit of my broth, plus a whole passel of chilies — serranos, habaneros, and jalapeños. Some I seared (serranos), some I kept raw. I like spice, but these chilies were all about to be stewed, so there wasn’t going to be a ton of heat. I just really like the flavor. I also cut some pasilla peppers up and dry-fried them in a seasoned Mexican clay pot, because I wanted some color besides red in the meat, and I’ve really been into these particular peppers lately.
Then I pulsed some tomatoes, which I’d broiled, and some red jalapeños. Soon, the whole meat mix was in my clay pot. I fished the pineapple out of my braising liquid and added it to the meat. I love pineapple and meat together and it gave me a chance to offer another nod to Rosarito — where the meat towers that they shave al pastor off of are all topped with a roasting pineapple.
Look, I’m sure there’s some oversight coming and everyone is going to be like, “Steve, you’re an idiot, launch yourself out a window” (Joke’s on you, I live on the first floor!) but I’ll say this: This barbacoa was exactly what I was trying to make. It was rich and deep and… well, I guess until the first Uproxx Food Festival you’re just going to have to take my word: My meat tastes amazing.
I know because as I write this, I’ve been having leftovers for three days straight. I’ve done puffy breakfast tacos and meat over rice and “meat scooped out of the fridge with a tortilla at odd hours of the night.” Between the cola and the pineapple, there is sweetness there — but the peppers and garlic offset it.
Here’s another of my nods to Rosarito. Over the years, I’ve grown more and more enamored with the “guacamole” they make there. Which is basically an avocado crema. I did my version of that: blending Crema Mexicana, one avocado, and some of my broth together to make this. I blended it so long that it essentially became an avocado foam. I just wanted a little grassiness and I love sour creme. I didn’t want to go full-guac.
Here’s where I get disqualified (which has to happen each round or it isn’t an Uproxx food face-off): My favorite taco shop in Rosarito — Tacos El Yaqui — makes a quesadilla on flour tortillas, then opens it back up and turns it into a taco. That’s what I wanted to try. Mostly, because, like Vince and Zach, I wanted some sense memory with my tacos — which meant super-sharp Tillamook cheese, melted. I remember when my cousins and I gradually convinced our parents to go sharp with the cheese, it felt like a major victory against the adult world. We used it on everything.
With the tortillas, I considered doing them about a thousand ways. I tried duck fat, but it carried a distracting amount of flavor, it was distracting. I tried avocado oil and bacon fat… eventually, I went back to tried and true olive oil. For tortillas, I used both corn and flour and corn balanced the flavors better. By this point in the evening, I was obsessing a little. I thought about getting the press out and making tortillas from scratch, which had been my original plan. I just didn’t know if I could make anything that would hold up to the folding and unfolding process and I’d become oddly committed to that idea.
On the sharp-melted-cheese-covered corn tortilla I put my meat, a mix of romaine and cilantro leaves, my crema, and a cherry tomato salsa. It’s basically a pico with raw jalapeños and serranos inside. I also used a little raw garlic, which I always feel ups the heat in a pico, and some raw onion for the same reason.
And…..FOLD. Totally a taco. 100% a taco. Please let this be a taco. If a taco can have cheese, I can melt the cheese, right?
I kept it smallish — like they do in Rosarito. That’s where I think the ratios are right. Tacos aren’t burritos. I want to eat six. And I did.
Vince on Steve’s Taco:
I like reading Steve’s food write-ups because it’s like a stream-of-consciousness meltdown. See how defensive you’ve made him? That looks like a great taco. Totally not overcomplicated at all. You did great. (*tries to beckon orderlies forward with eyes while distracting Steve with a hug*)
Zach on Steve’s Taco:
Okay. It’s hard to not love this taco. The meat alone seems like something I want in my life every. single. day. Avocado crema is also a very solid win in the avocado section of this challenge because it emulsifies two fats into one and you don’t need to waste valuable taco space with chunks of avocado (ahem, Vince). My biggest complaint here is construction. I want more of that meat. It looks like a skimpy taco in the end and that’s not fair after all those beautiful meat photos. More Meat. More Meat! MORE MEAT! Everybody Now!