For a Taste of Pure Summer Joy, Make Your Next Cookout a Mexico-Style Asada
For Bricia Lopez, owner of acclaimed L.A. restaurant Guelaguetza, hosting an asada is the ultimate gesture of love and generosity.
Carne asada is not just a taco.
In millions of backyards across Southern California, an asada represents more than just meat. It means family, friends, great music, cold drinks, and good times — all centered on the promise of juicy grilled meat and all the fixings. In a city like Los Angeles, where the taco is a way of life, backyard asada culture is as respected as church on Sundays.
Inviting someone to your carne asada is a gesture of love, respect, generosity, and friendship. It’s a way of welcoming you and feeding you like family. An asada can be as intimate or as big as you’d like it to be. You don’t need to celebrate anything but life to gather loved ones and throw an asada.
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I’ll never forget hosting my first asada in my own home. It was a rite of passage, one of the first times in my life I felt like a real adult. I was nervous my marinades wouldn’t hold up, that I would run out of food, that my mom would find my salsas bland. Things have changed quite a bit since then. Allow me to walk you through what an asada looks like in my house today.
My asadas almost always begin with a short guest list that will eventually double in size. I begin preparations the night before by marinating the meat, soaking the beans, and making salsas. With hands reeking of garlic and onion, I call it a night and try to get as much rest as possible.
The next day, I’ll wake up with a text from my sister saying her boyfriend’s brother and two friends are in town. Yes, they are also coming to the asada, and I realize that I won’t have enough time to marinate extra meat. This is when trusting your local Mexican grocery store is important: Every family has their go-to carnicería (meat market) that they will defend and stay loyal to for having the best marinated beef, pork, and chicken.
I roll out of bed and, before heading out, put a large pot of beans on the stove to cook. I then drive to my dearest Mexican grocery store and grab a couple of pounds of marinated pollo asado and arrachera (skirt steak), a bag of chicharrones, and extra cheeses. I get home to another text, this time from my brother, letting me know he will be rolling through with a couple of extra homies. I’m thankful I grabbed that extra pound of marinated arrachera. I check on my beans; they are perfect. I begin assembling fruit salad, and the chicharrones and cheeseboard, knowing I’ll have a few guests trickling in any minute.
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An asada’s start time is more a “suggested time of arrival,” and everyone has their own notion of when an asada should begin. I like to tell people 2 p.m. Most will begin trickling in between 3 p.m. and as late as 6 p.m. My youngest sister is usually the first to arrive. I like to believe it’s because she doesn’t have any kids, but then again, people who arrive on time to an asada are a species of their own.
Though an asada almost always takes place in an outdoor setting, in my house, it starts in my kitchen. I’m never ready for the first guest. They are the ones who see a glimpse of the storm before the calm. I am either reheating my beans, finishing my spread of salsas, or frantically making an agua fresca for the kids. The grill doesn’t get started until an hour after the first guest has arrived.
A classic night full of carne asada with friends and family goes like this: A random tío drinks way too much and starts to reminisce about the days when he was younger and how different things were; a primo and a friend “go for a walk” and return extra giggly and hungry; your niece or nephew will be asleep in a chair somewhere right in front of the thumping speaker; and only your truest friends will stay extra late to help you clean up before they go home.
A well-prepared asada gathering can be the difference between enjoying your own party or feeling like it was just an extra day of work. Fortunately, a backyard-style carne asada is extremely forgiving. Many of us love and actually prefer the pieces of carne that are well beyond “well-done.” Burned, even, or what we Mexicans like to refer to as bien doradito (“extra crispy”).
Hosting and making carne asada gets easier and more streamlined the more you do it. You will eventually start to develop a system and know how long it takes to get the fire started, how late your guests usually are, and how to achieve a foolproof tortilla-to-person ratio along with that meat-per-person ratio (for me, a half pound per person). But always remember: Throwing a carne asada is an act of love.
And yes, you are invited to the asada.
For more asada recipes and advice, pick up a copy of Asada: The Art of Mexican-Style Grilling ($40), coauthored by Bricia Lopez and Javier Cabral. Lopez comes from a long lineage of Oaxacan mezcal craftsmen and is a co-owner of Los Angeles’ renowned Guelaguetza restaurant. Cabral is the editor in chief of the James Beard Award– winning publication L.A. Taco.
Carne Asada Clásica
Balanced by intense umami notes from Worcestershire and dark Mexican ale, this asada also gets an underlying sweetness from fresh citrus juice. The savory and acidic marinade tenderizes the beef, while a quick stint on a grill over a hot fire quickly chars the exterior and leaves a perfectly pink center.
Salsa Asada de Aguacate
This creamy and spicy salsa blurs the line between guacamole and salsa verde. Tart tomatillos, lightly charred on the grill, are mellowed by buttery mashed avocados. Serve this versatile salsa dolloped on tacos, to scoop with chips, or as a spread on sandwiches.
Frijoles Negros de la Olla con Nopalito
Creamy black beans, simply seasoned with onion, garlic, and epazote, are a delicious match for meaty, lightly cooked nopal (also called prickly pear) cactus paddles. Lopez tosses nopales with salt to reduce the clear, jelly-like liquid that the vegetable releases.
Pollo Yucateco Asada (Yucatán-Style Grilled Chicken)
Stained red with sweet and peppery achiote (also called annatto) powder, these juicy chicken thighs are deeply seasoned with oregano, orange juice, and warm spices. Starting with whole spices, and toasting them before grinding releases oils and amplifies their flavor.
Fish and Shrimp Ceviche Tostadas
Studded with tomatoes and carrots, lime juice–cured seafood is piled atop fiery habanero crema. The crema can be made in advance, but build the tostadas just before serving to keep them crisp. Use any leftover crema for drizzling on tacos or grilled corn.
Sparkling Mezcal Water
Easily doubled for a party, this cocktail is a refreshing blend of citrus juice, mezcal, and bubbly sparkling water. For the best flavor, Lopez recommends single-origin espadín mezcal.
Salsa de Piña Tatemada (Grilled Pineapple Salsa)
Grilled pineapple is mixed with a pungent, garlicky habanero paste and fresh lime juice for a balanced, bold salsa.
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