Raise your hand if you play with your food.
(Confidently steps forward.)
If your mind instantly conjured the image of a toddler flinging marina-slathered strands of spaghetti all over the room—we’re not talking about the same thing.
I believe that in its purest form, playing with your food can simply mean eating with your hands.
And what better food to eat with your hands than tacos?
Street tacos, to be exact.
If you’re unfamiliar with this term, I know what you’re thinking. What in the world differentiates a “street” taco from a regular taco? Do I have to purchase it on a street instead of a road? Is it garnished with gravel?
Let me break it down for you.
“Street taco” refers to the type of small, handheld delicacy that you’d receive from a street cart, stand, or food truck in Mexico. Ever been to an Americanized version of a Mexican restaurant?
Yeah. It’s not that.
The formula is wildly straightforward and usually follows these rules: miniature corn tortillas (sometimes doubled up) topped with meat, onions, and cilantro. Hot sauce and salsas sold separately.
Street tacos are meant to be simple and eaten in multiples.
At a California-style Mexican eatery or Tex-Mex chain, you’re sure to find some ostentatious variations on the typical street taco. It might come with field greens, citrus vinaigrette, and fried avocado. It might be loaded with Thai peanut sauce and shredded carrots.
But when it comes to basic street tacos, traditional is best.
Ready for the other secret? Shh. Come close.
It’s all in the meat.
Since there aren’t a dozen bourgie condiments to fancy things up, the protein in a street taco is meant to be marinated, griddled to perfection, and exploding with flavor.
Chopped onion adds a crunch and a slight bit of sweetness, while fistfuls of fluffy cilantro lend bright floral notes. A few squeezes of fresh lime and tangy hot sauce and you’ve got yourself a date.
I mean, a taco.
We’ve covered the basics, now let’s get back to playing with our food.
For my street-style tacos, I wanted to keep one very important rule front and center: letting the meat be the star.
And trust me. After just one bite, you’ll be asking for the steak’s autograph.
Let’s talk about the commonly-used term “carne asada.” Translated, it means marinated and grilled steak. When you dig deeper, you’ll find that the most common carne asada marinades are mixtures of citrus, garlic, and spices.
Although you can get a pretty solid infusion of flavors in just a few hours, allowing the steak to get a full night of sleep in the marinade ensures that every meaty morsel is a mouthful of heaven.
Seriously. I even impressed myself with this one.
The citrus not only adds a tart pop, but it helps to tenderize the meat. Soy sauce does the same—but also adds some rich umami flavor. As for the garlic—do I even need to explain the glorious wonders of these pungently perfumed cloves of magic?
The dry spices might seem a little heavy-handed, but once you taste how the smoky cumin and savory chili powder permeate the meat—you’ll be like, “measuring spoons, who?”
While most official street vendors have a flat-top grill for the meat to make its landing, I do not. If you happen to own a taco truck outfitted with one of these convenient griddles, then read ahead.
Also, we should probably be best friends.
If you’re a home cook like me, reach for a heavy-bottomed skillet like a cast-iron (and my backward braising method) to achieve that expert sear.
Backward braising is not, in fact, the new dance that all the kids are doing these days. It’s how I pull off the juicy-on-the-inside, crispy-on-the-outside texture for my carne asada.
With braising, you sear the meat and then finish cooking it in a liquid. I take my steak—marinade and all—and first, drop it into a screaming hot pan. The sauce sizzles reduce and concentrates (maybe don’t wear your favorite shirt while you do this)—all while beginning to cook the meat.
Once it evaporates, the steak is fully infused and left alone to caramelize and collect its golden-brown crust.
Now that you’ve perfected the meat, let’s bring on the toppings. A true, traditional taco vendor on the streets of Mexico might roll his eyes at you if you ask for cheese—but I don’t consider myself a taco purist.
Also, cheese is my favorite food and it’s my kitchen so I’ll do what I want.
I opt for nutty, sharp white cheddar, but mild Monterey Jack would still provide a salty creaminess. Then, onions for crunch and sharpness, cilantro for herby freshness, and pico de gallo for a burst of zesty acidity.
Cervezas and limes sold separately.
Just kidding, they’re always invited.
- 2 tablespoons reduced-sodium soy sauce
- Juice of 1 lime, plus more limes for serving
- 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed orange juice
- 2 tablespoons canola oil, divided
- 1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro, divided
- 3 large cloves garlic, minced
- 1 tablespoon minced jalapeno
- 2 teaspoons chili powder
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1 1/2 pounds skirt or flank steak, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
- Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- 12 mini corn tortillas
- 1 1/2 cups shredded sharp white cheddar or Monterey Jack cheese
- 1/2 cup finely chopped white onion
- Pico de gallo, homemade or store-bought (for garnish)
- In a medium bowl, whisk the soy sauce, lime juice, orange juice, 1 tablespoon of the canola oil, 1/4 cup of the cilantro, garlic, jalapenos, chili powder, cumin, and oregano.
- Pour the marinade into a large resealable bag and add the steak. Marinate for at least 2 hours or at best, overnight.
- In a large skillet over medium-high heat, add the remaining canola oil and swirl to coat the pan. Add the steak and its marinade and season with a pinch each of salt and pepper. Cook, stirring often until the liquid has reduced and the steak has browned about 8-10 minutes. Season to taste with additional salt and pepper if necessary.
- Warm the tortillas on a gas burner or a flat-top until lightly charred all over. Assemble the tacos by topping them with even portions of the steak, cheese, chopped onion, Pico de gallo, and remaining cilantro. Serve warm with the lime wedges and additional toppings such as sour cream, guacamole, and hot sauce.
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 798 Total Fat: 41g Saturated Fat: 17g Trans Fat: 0g Unsaturated Fat: 20g Cholesterol: 186mg Sodium: 905mg Carbohydrates: 43g Net Carbohydrates: 0g Fiber: 7g Sugar: 4g Sugar Alcohols: 0g Protein: 65g
Cooking By the Numbers…
Step 1 – Prepare the Marinade and Chop the Steak
Chop the cilantro, garlic, jalapenos, and steak. To make the steak easier to cut, place it in the freezer for 20 minutes beforehand.
In a medium bowl, whisk the soy sauce, lime juice, orange juice, 1 tablespoon of the canola oil, 1/4 cup of the cilantro, garlic, jalapenos, chili powder, cumin, and oregano.
Pour the marinade into a large resealable bag and add the steak. Marinate for at least 2 hours or at best, overnight. The longer the steak can marinate, the stronger the flavor will be. I highly suggest marinating it overnight!
Step 2 – Brown the Steak
In a large skillet over medium-high heat, add the remaining canola oil and swirl to coat the pan. Add the steak and its marinade and season with a pinch each of salt and pepper. Cook, stirring often until the liquid has reduced and the steak has browned about 8-10 minutes.
The steak is essentially boiling in its marinade, and then once the liquid reduces—the pieces get their golden-brown crisp on the outside. Season to taste with additional salt and pepper if necessary.
Step 3 – Assemble the Tacos
Warm the tortillas on a gas burner or a flat-top until lightly charred all over.
Assemble the tacos by topping them with even portions of the steak, cheese, chopped onion, Pico de gallo, and remaining cilantro. Serve warm with the lime wedges and additional toppings such as sour cream, guacamole, and hot sauce.
Let’s Taco ‘Bout It.
Can’t get Mexican food off your mind? Same. Break out the salsa and give these other zesty recipes a go: