I lived in San Francisco from late 1999 until early 2010. In 2003, I moved to the Mission District, home to a vibrant Latino community and all the glorious food that comes with it. Some of the Mexican restaurants in the neighborhood had food trucks that would park and serve food each day from “reserved” and protected spots around The Mission. One such restaurant, El Tonayense, had (and still has) a few trucks, one of which parked directly across the street from my house every day. This was my real introduction to street food, and I will go to my grave defending their tacos and burritos as the best on Planet Earth. It’s a shame that I didn’t pay closer attention to the ingredients when I lived there. If I knew then that I wouldn’t be back, I would have tried to reverse engineer their menu! But the memory remains, and it is still powerful enough for me to remember every nuance of flavor. My usual choice was a carne asada (literally “grilled meat” in Spanish) super burrito. What made it “super” was the inclusion of sour cream, guacamole and cheese. The cheese did nothing for me, so I always told them to hold it, but the guacamole and sour cream lifted the burrito above the rest. The guac and sour were blended together until smooth and dispensed from a plastic condiment bottle. Besides carne asada, I would also order carnitas and al pastor (both slow-cooked preparations of pork). If I wasn’t feeling as hungry, I’d order a couple of tacos. Mexican tacos are nothing, nothing like the things Old El Paso would have you make with their crispy taco shells. Real Mexican tacos come on soft corn tortillas. The tortilla gets a dollop of meat (carne asada, al pastor, etc), and is topped with a bit of hot salsa and chopped onions and cilantro. They are served with lime wedges to squeeze over the taco before eating. They are served on paper plates, they are messy and they are eaten with the hands. They are Nirvana.
Until I can figure out a way to have El Tonayense ship some of their super burritos across the country to me, I’ve been cracking the secrets to their taste and to the “authentic” Mexican taste in general. The recipe presented here isn’t exactly like El Tonayense, but it has that beautiful taco truck taste. I’ve also made this recipe easy and quick. Often Mexican cuisine, like American Barbecue, uses tougher cuts of meat that require long cooking times to break down the collagen in the meat to make it tender. To make this recipe possible for a weeknight meal, I’ve replaced the carne asada with ground beef. But I promise you, you’ll still love it.
If you don’t live in California (or New York City, so I’m told), then there’s a good chance you haven’t tasted a real taco. Please give this recipe a try, and I will follow it up with more recipes that I’ve extracted from my memories of California.
You may notice that I don’t use tomatoes or traditional salsa roja in this recipe. This is a personal preference. I find the flavors shine better without tomato, but if you have a salsa you love, go ahead and add it. The same goes for your favorite hot sauce.
A note about chili powder. In this recipe, I use a few different ground dried chili peppers, but you can substitute store bought chili powder, if you’d like. I always keep a selection of dried chili peppers on hand so I can mix my own chili powder. Not only do the dried chili peppers taste fresher, but they last longer before oxidation robs them of their flavor and heat. Most supermarkets carry dried chili peppers in their ethnic foods section. If you can’t find them in your local grocery store, you can find them on Amazon.
Enough of my jawboning. Let’s make some tacos! Printer-friendly recipe at the end of the post.
Authentic (and Quick) Beef Tacos
for the beef
- 1 1/2 pounds ground chuck, 80% lean
- 2 teaspoons ground cumin
- 2 teaspoons paprika
- 2 teaspoons Kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon onion powder
- 1 teaspoon Mexican oregano
- 1 teaspoon chili negro powder (can substitute store-bought chili powder)
- 1 teaspoon chili ancho powder (can substitute store-bought chili powder)
- 1 teaspoon chili pasilla powder (can substitute store-bought chili powder)
- 1/2 teaspoon chili chipotle powder
- 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
for the guacamole with sour cream
- 2 avocados, skin and pit discarded
- 1/2 sweet onion, quartered
- 2/3 cup sour cream
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 tablespoons lime juice
- 1 teaspoon Kosher salt
- 1 handful of cilantro
for the onion & cilantro topping
- 1/2 sweet onion, diced
- 1 handful of cilantro, chopped
all the rest
- 8-10 small corn tortillas
- 1/2 small red cabbage, shredded
- 1 lime, cut into wedges
Combine the beef and all of the spices in a large pan and add enough water to cover the meat. There is no need to brown the beef first. Bring mixture to a boil, then reduce heat to low and let the beef simmer, uncovered, for an hour. Add more water if necessary during cooking.
After an hour, if the water hasn’t evaporated, keep simmering until it has. There will be a lot of beef fat in the pan, but leave it in there! Remove from heat, spoon beef into a bowl and set aside.
While the beef is cooking, make the guacamole with sour cream and the toppings.
Add all of the guacamole ingredients to a food processor and blend until smooth. If you don’t have a food processor, chop up the onion some more, mix everything by hand, then blend until smooth in a blender. Place in a bowl and set aside
Combine the diced onion and chopped cilantro in a bowl and set aside.
Place the shredded red cabbage in a bowl and set aside.
Heat a large cast iron skillet over medium heat.
Add two tortillas to the ungreased skillet. Heat for about 10-15 seconds, then flip them and repeat.
Put the two tortillas on a plate.
Add a spoonful of guacamole to each tortilla and spread it around a bit.
Add one or two spoonfuls of meat on top of the guacamole.
Top the meat with some shredded cabbage and some of the onion/cilantro mixture.
Squeeze a lime wedge over the tacos.
Repeat with remaining tortillas.
Eat and be messy!