As a Mexican born and raised in Mexico City, I thought I knew my carne asada.
But it wasn’t until I traveled across the state of Sonora, from the border city of Nogales to Navojoa, in the southern part of the region, that I had a true taste of the northern-style carne asada experience.
At a taco stand anywhere else, carne asada is grilled meat. But in Sonora, a carne asada is the weekly gathering of friends and family, with the dish at its heart. Every component — from the dishes (the meat, the salsa, the beans, the smashed guacamole never with lime, the pillowy-soft flour tortillas) to their preparation (the cooking, the taco assembly) to everyone’s role (the parrillero, or grill master, his family members, the guests) — is treated with almost reverence.
A shared culinary experience, it embodies Sonora’s agricultural way of life, bringing together the pillars of its economy: its beef, from the cattle that roam the region’s ranches, and its flour tortillas, from the wheat that blankets its fields.
I learned that, to understand a carne asada, you needed to be invited to one. And that doesn’t just happen. The gatherings tend to be tight knit, with just family and close friends in attendance.
Still, I managed to be invited to not one, but two.
“It’s like getting the secret password,” said Hector Platt, whom I met at one event. “Once you are invited to a carne asada, you are in. You are part of the group and have access as if you were a member of the family.”
Earlier this year, before the world was turned upside down, I traveled to Sonora to film my television show, “Pati’s Mexican Table,” a travelogue and cooking program that explores the country’s different regions. I met with cooks, growers, ranchers, butchers, farmers, merchants and artists. At every turn, Sonorans playfully competed over who hosts the best carne asada — and all referred to them as the soul of the region.
At the center is “nuestra carne,” as Sonorans proudly call their beef, and its reputation extends to the rest of Mexico and across the U.S. border. The United States receives about 86 percent of Mexico’s beef exports, of which over a third comes from Sonora, according to Alvaro Bustillos, a third-generation rancher from Vaquero Trading, a Mexican cattle company.
You would think that parrilleros might seek out the most expensive pieces of meat. But carne asada is not about the fanciest cuts or the aging process.
Its essence lies in “a good, fresh, tasty piece of meat that will always end up in a taco,” said Carlos Buena, an impassioned parrillero who competes in national grilling contests. “Its final destination is never to be plated or eaten with a dinner fork and a serrated knife.”
The traditional cuts are the unfussy and budget-friendly diezmillo, or chuck roll, and palomilla, or top sirloin. The diezmillo has an intense beef flavor and a sturdy chew, while the palomilla offers a subtle taste and a tender, juicy bite. Elsewhere, these cuts are commonly cooked low and slow, and used in stews, but, in Sonora, they’re taken in the opposite direction, sliced thin and cooked fast over high heat. It’s common for people to opt for one or the other, but many choose both cuts.
The meat is cooked on an open charcoal grill, preferably mesquite. First, the grate is cleaned by rubbing white onion and greased with a chunk of beef fat. Then, once the flames run wild, whole chiles, tomatoes and onions get their turn.
As they char, their flavors are coaxed out, and their juices run, as they are mashed into a roasted salsa. Once the flames calm down and the charcoal glimmers red under a layer of ashes, the grill is ready for the meat. Knowing the exact moment is crucial: The ultimate test is to hold a hand out a beer can’s length above the fire for four to five seconds. If you can only hold it for less, the heat is too high. If you can last longer than that, you need to fire it up again.
As for the meat, it should be sliced about ½- to ¾-inch thick for a decent bite, and must be seasoned with only one ingredient — salt, preferably sea salt. Using anything else is considered a serious offense. A marinade? Unfathomable. It simply stops being a carne asada.
Many suggest salting only one side of the meat, as Jose Luis Lambarri, a food entrepreneur does. Mr. Lambarri brought me to my first carne asada and also took me to see the wheat fields with his business partner, Carlos Preciado.
“Add a generous amount of salt over the top of the meat right before you throw it on the grill; no timer needed,” said Mr. Lambarri, who is considered an especially good parrillero by his friends and neighbors. “Once it begins to sweat and its juices rise and bubble, that is when you flip it, only once.” The salt flavors the meat from the top down, while the bottom gets a clean char.
As traditional as a carne asada may be, change is beginning to creep in, thanks to social media. Costillitas, or short plate ribs, are now thrown on the grill to nibble as a starter. With its complex taste and playful bite, arrachera, or skirt steak, is catching the interest of some wanting to offer higher-quality cuts to their guests. So is the tablilla, a boneless short rib with a robust, luscious bite.
Sharing the spotlight with the meat is the parrillero. Traditionally a man, there’s one in every family and friend group. Not only does the parrillero work the grill, he also buys the ingredients, invites guests and entertains. A good parrillero doesn’t need to be a skilled professional; he needs only to never mess up the meat, to get it out fast and diced to keep up with demand, and to make sure warm tortillas, salsa, refried beans and guacamole are at the ready. While the parrillero helms the grill, the women in the family are usually in charge of preparing the other dishes.
He must also save the receipts, so everyone can pitch in. As a guest, the only food or drink you are allowed to bring is cold beer or dessert.
And that’s what I found most moving about carne asadas: their sense of community. A carne asada is never meant for one. It’s a celebration of simply coming together with a close group of loved ones, which feels especially poignant right now.
From week to week, in normal times, you might catch a priest coming over for a baptism, a piñata being broken for a birthday, or a family mourning after a funeral: “Desde la bienvenida hasta la despedida,” as Sonorans say, from the first arrival, to the last goodbye.