Barbecue Alley: The Mexican Grill

Serves: 5



To many North Americans, Mexican cooking means tacos, burritos, and enchiladas. Grill buffs, though, will be pleased to learn that Mexico has a venerable, varied, and lively tradition of live-fire cooking, from the mesquite-grilled steaks of the north to the spicy grilled fish of the Yucatán.

There’s even a version of pit-cooked barbecue known as barbacoa, a term that has different meanings in various parts of the country. In the north, barbacoa is made with beef, in the south with pyrotechnically spiced goat, and in Mexico City with lamb wrapped in the leaves of maguay cactus and roasted in a wood-heated brick pit: There is no marinade, no spice rub, nor are there fancy condiments-just lamb cooked to fall-off-the-bone tenderness in a pit.

Mexico offers plenty of interesting barbecue cooked over direct heat, too. Consider the gracious colonial city of Oaxaca in the south-central part of the country. Famous for its moles (complex, slow-simmered sauces made from nuts, fruits, and a dazzling array of chiles), Oaxaca is also a hotbed of thrilling grilling. "Barbecue alley," as it is known, in the Mercado 20 de Noviembre (November 20 Market) is a great place to sample the best of Mexican live-fire fare.

To find the "alley," you just follow your nose to a smoky arcade on the east side of the market. Lining the arcade are rows of barbecue stalls-each sending thick billows of smoke toward the skylight. The ordering procedure is a little confusing to newcomers, but it ensures that everything you eat will be hot off the grill.

As you enter the arcade, pause at the vegetable stalls on the right or left. (I liked the first stall on the right, where two of the servers, Yolanda and Gloria, delight in pulling your leg as they take your order.) Ask for a bunch of scallions and a couple of chiles de agua. (The latter are rather innocent-looking peppers that resemble American cubanelles. There all innocence ends.) The vegetables will be handed to you in a paper-lined wicker basket.

Continue down the arcade. To the right and left you’ll see a series of meat stalls. There are four or five basic meats to choose from: carne de res (beef), tazajo (dried beef), cecino (cured pork), chorizo (strings of egg-shaped, blood-colored sausages), and rope-like hanks of tripe. The meats are cut into broad, thin strips and are displayed on tables. No, they’re not refrigerated, but the high heat of the charcoal acts as a powerful disinfectant.

Pick a stall (I liked no. 189) and point to the type of meat you want. The owner will cut off a few pieces of beef, pork, or tripe and weigh them on a scale. Enter a woman who relieves you of your scallions and chiles, nestling them amid the coals of an enormous brazier fashioned from a washtub filled with concrete.

She’s the asador (grill jockey), and while you watch, she’ll fire-char your vegetables and grill your meats on a wire grate resting directly on the coals. While she does, the tortilla lady arrives and counts out the desired number of tortillas and warms them for you on the grill. Meanwhile, a fifth lady stops to sell you a nopalito (cactus paddle) salad, neatly packaged in a tiny plastic bag. Give her a large bill to pay for the salad and she’ll place the tray on her head while she makes change.

When the meats and vegetables are cooked, the asador returns them to your basket. Go back to the first stall where Yolanda will peel and seed your chiles, scrape the burnt parts off your scallions, and douse both with lime juice and salt. Then Gloria will give you dishes of guacamole and salsa mexicana, whose colors, appropriately, mirror the Mexican flag: green serrano chiles, white onions, and shockingly red tomatoes. (Texans will recognize the preparation as pico de gallo.)

Take your seat at one of the low stone communal tables, and let the feast begin. To eat carne asado, place a sliver of meat on a tortilla and top it with charred onions, some chiles, a bit of salsa, and a little guacamole. Roll it up and pop it into your mouth. If you’re feeling particularly macho you can eat the chile straight, otherwise wrap it in the tortilla with the other ingredients.

A meal of carne asado is fun-you interact with vendors and fellow diners at the communal tables and enjoy a spicy treat you won’t soon forget. A trip to "barbecue alley" is worth a detour!

This Barbecue Alley: The Mexican Grill recipe is from the The Barbecue Bible Cookbook. Download this Cookbook today.

More Recipes from the The Barbecue Bible Cookbook:
A Day with Najmieh Batmanglij: The Persian Grill
A Few Shark and Bake Tips
A Griller's Guide to the World's Chiles
A Marinating Tip
A New French Paradox
A Special Word About Ground Meat, Burgers, and Sausages
A Traditional Barbacoa
Aleppo Pepper
Approximate Times for Rotisserie Cooking
Barbecue Alley: The Mexican Grill
Barbecue Countdown
Barbecue from the Land of Morning Calm:
Basmati Rice Five Ways
Beef Grilling Chart *
Black Gold
Bombay Tikka "Taco"
Butterflying a Flank Steak
Cleaning and Oiling the Grill
Cooking Hamburgers
Cooking With a Blowtorch
Cooking with Wood
Fish Grilling Chart*
From Hamburg to Hoboken: A Brief History of the Hambuger
Grate Expectations: Some Tips on Grilling Vegetables
Grating Citrus Peel
Grilled Rujak
Grilling Indoors
Grinding It Out
Ground Meats Grilling Chart
Hawkers' Center
How to Butterfly Pork or Beef
How to Butterfly Short Ribs for Korean-Style Grilling
How to Cut Up a Chicken
How to Dry Fennel Stalks
How to Grill Perfect Chicken
How to Grill Perfect Chicken Halves and Quarters
How to Grill Perfect Fish Fillets
How to Grill Perfect Vegetables Every Time
How to Grill a Whole Grilled Fish
How to Grill the Perfect Fish
How to Grill the Perfect Whole Chiken
How to Grill the Perfect Whole Fish
How to Make Scallion Brushes
How to Peel and Devein Shrimp
How to Skin and Bone Fish Fillets
How to Spatchcock a Chicken or Game Hen
How to Stuff Sausages Like a Pro
How to Unskewer Shish Kebabs
How to grill a perfect steak
How to grill with out a grate
How to make ricw powder
How to prepare fresh coconut
How to rinse and dry Cilantro
How to rinse salad greens
How to toast seeds, nuts, and breadcrumbs
In pursuit of the best Tuscan Steak
Jerk: The Jamaican Barbecue
Lamb Grilling Chart
Larding the Beef
Making crosshatch grill marks
Matambre: A hunger-killer from South America
Mesclun Mix
Of Koftas, Lyulas, and Seekh
On trimming fat from meat
Pit Cooking
Pork Grilling Chart
Pork the Italian Way
Poultry Grilling Chart*
Shellfish Grilling Chart*
Stalking the Elusive Grilled Snail
Stuck on Sate: The Indonesian Grill
The Afghan Grill
The Argentinian Grill
The Birth of the Kettle
The Brazilian Grill
The Four Styles of American Barbecue
The Indian Grill
The Japanese Grill
The Macanese Grill
The Moroccan Grill
The Most Famous Fish House in Indonesia
The Splendid Resaurant Karim
The Tale of Three Barbecues: The Thai Grill
The Ten Commandments of Perfect Grilling
The Turkish Grill
The Vietnamese Grill
To Render Chicken Fat
Types of Charcoal
Uruguay's Mercado Del Puerto
Vegetable Grilling Chart*
What to look for in a Grill
When You’re Feeling Less Than Brave
When to cover the Grill
When to use a Drip Pan
Whole Fish, Tikin Xik Style

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