If you were in Houston in the 1980’s, it was hard to escape the ubiquitous tacos al carbon. Ninfa Laurenzo—of the eponymous Ninfa’s—made them her signature dish and as with her green sauce, many Houston Mexican restaurants soon added these tacos to their menus as well. Tacos al carbon became a defining characteristic of Houston Tex-Mex
But what exactly are tacos al carbon?
The term al carbon is the Spanish phrase for cooking over coal, so you should expect grilled meats inside a tortilla. If you have tacos al carbon in Mexico, you will indeed find a variety of meats wrapped in either corn or flour tortillas depending on where you are geographically. But in Texas tacos al carbon came to mean one thing: cuts of grilled beef, nestled in a fluffy flour tortilla.
But wait, isn’t that a fajita? Now this is where it gets confusing.
So what's the difference between fajitas and tacos al carbon? As I understand it, very little. Fajitas, which translates to little belts, are traditionally made with the tough diaphragm cut of beef known as skirt steak, which is a long and narrow, much like a belt.
The meat is often marinated and then grilled or griddled, and it’s served with a prescribed array of condiments such as guacamole, pico de gallo, sour cream and a stack of flour tortillas, all used to roll your own tacos. And yes, you can make fajitas, the dish, out of shrimp or chicken, but since the word itself refers to the cut of beef, technically it should be called something else.
Tacos al carbon, however, can be made with any type of meat, not just the traditional skirt steak. And unlike fajitas, the tacos are already made instead of being a do-it-yourself affair. I think this is the main difference, but even for me it’s a bit of a semantic stretch.
Small differences aside, I still prefer tacos al carbon to fajitas. Sure, fajitas are a quite the spectacle, but sometimes you crave a more refined presentation. (Or perhaps I prefer tacos al carbon because I burned myself on the sizzling fajita skillet one too many times!) But no matter how you serve it, it’s hard to resist a fresh flour tortilla wrapped around succulent beef so flavorful you can eat the two together unadorned.
I live in a small apartment without any outdoor space so there’s no cooking over coal for me. But if I get my cast-iron skillet hot enough and then slide my steak under the broiler, I get a nice charred crust that’s almost as good as what I could get on a grill. So yes, technically these aren’t true tacos al carbon (they're more like tacos a la plancha, which means tacos of the griddle). But I don’t mind because after one bite I’m back in that little restaurant on Navigation where the beef is juicy, the tortillas are soft and the green sauce is plentiful.
Tacos al carbon, small-apartment style
2 pounds skirt steak
Juice of 4 limes (about 1/2 cup)
4 cloves of garlic
1/4 cup cilantro
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon black pepper
1 teaspoon of canola oil or nonstick cooking spray
Four green onions (optional)
To make the marinade, in a blender mix all the ingredients except for the skirt steak, canola oil and green onions. Pour over skirt steak and let it marinate for 2 to 8 hours in the refrigerator.
Before cooking, rinse off the marinade and let the steak come to room temperature. Heat on high for 10 minutes a large cast-iron skillet or grill pan (you may have to cut the steak in half to fit). Also, turn on the broiler in your oven. When the skillet is hot (to test I throw in a drop of water and it should immediately evaporate), grease your pan with either the oil or nonstick cooking spray and add your steak. Cook on one side for two minutes then turn and cook on the other side for two minutes.
After it’s cooked on both sides, place the green onions in the skillet with the steak still in it and place the skillet under the broiler for two minutes. Remove steak from pan and let it rest for 10 minutes. If onions aren’t charred enough, slide the skillet back under the broiler. After meat has rested, slice the meat against the grain and roll in fluffy, flour tortillas with green onions on the side.
Notes: I don’t have a grill or outdoor space, so I don’t know as much as I’d like to about the subject, but to cook the steaks truly al carbon, I’ve been told five minutes per side should do the trick.