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!
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