A subgenre of online food writing is a vast trove of what have come to be called “copycat recipes.” There, you can dig up a recipe to replicate, say, Panda Express’ Orange Chicken, or Outback Steakhouse’s Bloomin’ Onion. An entire site for such is at the simply worded copykat.com.
When I lived in Chicago from 2002 to 2016 and contributed to the Chicago Tribune’s food pages, one of the most-read Tribune stories ever was by a reporter who had been made privy to a family album of Harland David Sanders (Colonel Sanders), the white-on-white gentleman who founded Kentucky Fried Chicken. The reporter, Jay Jones, was shown a handwritten list at the back of the album for “11 Spices — Mix With 2 Cups White Fl.”
Had Jones uncovered one of the food industry’s most closely guarded secrets? Back at the Tribune’s test kitchens in Chicago, the recipe sure was “finger-lickin’ good.”
For my turn, I haven’t plunged pixel-deep into any of these online copycat recipes, figuring I don’t much fancy the originals so why bother?
But I was asked by a friend if, by some hook or crook, I might re-create one of his favorite tacos, from a small but famed taco stand in Rosarito, Mexico, a town on the coast of Baja California south of Tijuana. The place is El Yaqui, named after the indigenous people of what is now called the state of Sonora, Mexico, across the Gulf of California from Baja.
Sonora is well-known for cooking and eating beef. Folk from far and wide come for Tacos El Yaqui, pieces of marinated and grilled beef flank steak set into thick flour tortillas, adorned with piquant red sauce, cheese, pinto beans and other garnishes.
But there’s no recipe, online or otherwise. Wisely (or, as a matter of course, simply because this isn’t a foodie star-gazing joint), El Yaqui doesn’t divulge “how it’s done.”
But youtube does. And so do tripadvisor.com comments, and the hundreds of pictures downloaded onto pinterest.com and any number of other image-grabbing sites.
So, I got to work putting together a recipe for El Yaqui’s tacos, using what’s now etched in time for us in the way paper and ink recipes used to do the same.
I could listen to El Yaqui’s founder, Don Felipe Nuñez, describe his method and his (no longer) secret formula, begun in 1984, and watch visuals of what for all intents and purposes was the recipe (“handmade flour tortilla with cheese … meat, beans, onions, cilantro …”) scroll across the bottom of the screen in closed-captions.
Watching other videos, and reading many visitor comments, and picking up tricks from the likes of chef Rick Bayless (a frequent customer to El Yaqui), I assembled a recipe for the tacos.
Two things are especially important if one wishes to duplicate the recipe in every way: the first is to use only what is called by the Sonorans “arrachera” meat, the cut of beef we name skirt or flank (or sometimes “flap”) meat, and grilling over a wood — not charcoal — flame.
The first is easy to accomplish; the second, easier in summertime and outdoors than at other times of the year. Indoors, I use a very hot cast iron flat skillet or an iron grill pan with raised ridges that char long grill marks onto anything cooked in it.
I believe I made a good copycat recipe. But the best acknowledgment was to hear from my friend that I had. He’s been to El Yaqui (many times), while I never have.
Although, in a fashion, I guess you could say that, now, any of us can go there.
Tacos El Yaqui (Carne Asada Open-faced Tacos)
The garnish of grilled or roasted jalapeño is crucial; at El Yaqui, they are nicknamed “Mexican candy.” Makes enough for 6 medium-sized tacos, or 2-3 servings.
- 3/4 pound skirt or flank beef steak
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 tablespoons any red adobo or spice or steak rub or “taco seasoning”
- Juice of 1 orange
- Juice of 1 lime
- 2 cloves garlic, minced or thinly sliced
- 6 8-inch flour tortillas, warmed or pan-heated
- 6 thin slices asadero or Monterey Jack or fontina cheese
- 1/2 cup salsa roja (see recipe below)
- Garnishes of cooked pinto beans, chopped white onion, guacamole, and chopped cilantro leaves
- Grilled or roasted jalapeño peppers
Make a marinade of the olive oil, the seasoning powder, citrus juices and garlic, and marinate the meat for 1-3 hours (no longer or the citrus acidity will make the meat mushy). On an outdoor grill, with wood coals (preferred) or other high heat, or inside on a very hot cast-iron skillet or grill pan, grill the meat for 3-4 minutes on each side, letting it rest for 5 minutes before cutting it against the grain into thin “fingers,” and then into 1/2-inch cubed pieces.
To serve: Place 1 slice of cheese into the fold of each tortilla, then a serving of meat (6-8 pieces), then a spooned strip of salsa roja, and then the remaining garnishes, as they are listed in turn, finishing with the cilantro leaves. Serve 2-3 tacos for each diner with the jalapeño peppers as a side.
To make salsa roja: For 20 minutes, boil 5 plum or Roma tomatoes, quartered; 1 medium white onion, peeled and quartered; 2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped; 2 each serrano and jalapeño peppers, stemmed and chopped; and 1 teaspoon salt, in enough water to cover all. With care, blend in two batches, adding 12 whole stalks of cilantro with leaves. In a saucepan, put 2 tablespoons neutral oil and, over medium heat and with care when adding, cook the blended sauce, stirring occasionally, for 20 minutes at a simmer. Stores well in the refrigerator.
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