The debate has raged on for decades: who makes the best carne asada in Tijuana? With hundreds of locations offering carne asada in just one city of about 2 million people, that question can truly never be answered. There are, however, many standouts. One standout in particular is Tacos Don Estéban, who have been making their special variety of carne asada out of New York steak since 1965.
A New York State of Mind
While most taquerías in Northern Mexico, particularly in Baja California, make their carne asada out of arrachera (a great tasting cut of meat itself), there are quite a few places around Tijuana that make theirs out of New York (or strip) steak. Tacos Don Estéban further sets itself apart by featuring razor thin slices of whole steak lightly marinated and then grilled over burning hot mesquite wood. The wood is essential in giving a nice smoky flavor while maintaining a juicy, tender consistency due to the fat content of New York steak.
A word of advice when ordering near the grill: always make sure to give your self adequate distance from it, so that you can avoid occasional smoke blowing your way, or worse yet, the occasional burning hot ember that may randomly fly out from time to time. After the carne asada is grilled, it’s placed whole (as opposed to being finely chopped, like in most area taquerías) in a corn tortilla with avocado slices. You can then choose how you want your taco done.
Make It Crispy
Unlike places that use a comal to heat up or crisp tortillas, or a plancha to make a taco “dorado” (golden brown from animal fat on both sides), Don Estéban folds up the taco and places it directly into the fire with the burning hot mesquite wood. You choose how well done you want it: “blandito” (not crisped at all), “dorado/tostado/asado” (all will get you a nice crunch to your taco), “bien dorado/tostado/asado” (even crunchier), and “bien quemado” (well burnt).
Order It “Con Todo”
It is of note that if you ask for a taco de carne asada “con todo” (with everything) here, they will put beans in the taco. Most of us born and raised on both sides of this border (as well as most people from Northern Mexico in general) tend to hate this practice, as we look at it as sullying up a taco with cheap filler. Those from parts of Southern and Central Mexico will counter that there is more nutrition to adding beans to carne asada tacos, but then we would just point out that if that were the case, why not slather/drown all cuts of meat with beans, and not just the more expensive cuts of beef used in carne asada?
Fear not, my fellow taco eaters. At Tacos Don Estéban, the beans are refried beans that have been liquefied so much that they are essentially a spread that just lines the inside of the taco. The beans actually enhance the taco. Trust me.
I understand that some of you may have flashbacks to the time a taquero drowned your perfectly grilled carne asada with boiling hot whole beans from the pot, thus steam-cooking your carne asada into a rubbery overcooked mess with little beef flavor. That will never happen at Tacos Don Estéban. Whether you have your taco with beans or not, the meat will always be juicy, smoky, and flavorful.
The World Didn’t End in 2012, but You Should Eat Like It
Tacos Don Estéban also makes fantastic quesadillas. I recommend the “2012,” a quesadilla campechana with carne asada and chorizo (a harder chorizo, more like longaniza). Eating one of these quesadillas is like eating 4 regular size tacos, so be forewarned: they will fill you up. Don’t forget to add all the side toppings to your tacos such as the curtido de habanero (pickled onions with habanero), diced onions, and lime.
The salsas at Tacos Don Estéban are also quite unique. Like many taquerías, they offer two salsas: a salsa verde and a salsa roja. However, these salsas are much more coarsely mixed, and have an eerie, soup like appearance, complemented further by their unique flavors.
The salsa verde is more of a yellow green, and appears to contain chile serrano. The salsa roja, is pure fire, and contains what looks like a combination of habaneros, chile de arbol, and possibly small pieces of serrano, and maybe some others. It has a wonderful, addictive taste that will leave you burning the next day.
Tacos Don Estéban is open from 9 AM to 11 PM, 7 days a week.