Something’s Cooking at Your Local Carniceria

The jingle bells wrapped around the door handle announce our arrival into the small Hispanic meat market. Cumbias blast through the radio speakers and the cashier greets us with a hurried “Hola!” as she rings up a customer. Making our way through the narrow aisle of shelves filled with canned beans and tortillas, we reach the hub of our local carniceria. Patrons shout their orders in Spanish while the butchers work behind a long display case filled with bright red cuts of beef and pork meat.

Upon the butcher’s cue, my husband responds, “Dos libras de carne ranchera preparada, por favor.” With a nod, he places a few pounds of thinly sliced meat into a plastic bag, pours a concoction of juices and spices over it, and ties it up. Then he grabs a bunch of scallions, tosses everything into a plastic grocery bag and hands it over with a smile and a “Gracias!

When we left, I felt as if I’d been inside a market in my hometown or in any of the dozens of markets like it in Sonora, Mexico. With a major chain grocery store less than a mile away, Super Carniceria El Herradero in Tucson, Arizona, is bustling with customers who come for Mexican specialties like cheeses (cotija, queso fresco) and pastries. And they especially come for the cuts of meat like lengua (beef tongue), arrachera (thin cut flank steak) and carne diesmillo (a style of boneless chuck steak) you won’t get at a national chain supermarket. Besides selection, customer loyalty to markets like these is embedded in old-fashioned personalized service—like grilling some spiced marinated meat for you on weekends for free!

If you’ve ever eaten marinated grilled meat (carne asada) from a carniceria like El Herradero, you know there is a bit of magic that goes into the preparation. My favorite is the thin-cut skirt steak (ranchera). The signature flavor comes from the bath of juices and spices in which meat soaks in for a minimum of three hours; but the longer it marinates, the better it tastes. Though several “secret” recipes exist on the Internet, main ingredients include orange and lime juices, onion, minced cilantro, garlic powder, Mexican oregano, vegetable oil, salt, and pepper. I’ve also seen vinegar added in there. Bottled versions have similar flavors to homemade, but I prefer using fresh ingredients. The acidic citrus juices not only tenderize the meat, they infuse a zesty kick that compliment the savory seasonings that make every bite gush with flavor. Because these are thin cuts of meat, they grill quickly—after four to six minutes on each side, they’re done.

Along with the meat, I like to grill vegetables like peppers, onions, mushrooms and zucchini. In a separate bowl, marinate them ahead of time for extra flavor. Smoky grilled vegetables added into a warm corn tortilla with this seasoned beef and my homemade guacamole is one of my favorite meals to prepare. For a fun meal that’s also kid-friendly, lay out all the ingredients and create a build-your-own-taco bar.

If you’re a fan of Mexican food, you will not regret checking out your local Hispanic meat market. Although some may not label themselves as carnicerias, these independently owned markets seem to be popping up in neighborhoods across the nation. With friendly service and fresh, delicious foods, it’s definitely worth the trip!

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Christy Wilson
Christy Wilson, RD, is a health and nutrition writer, recipe developer and nutrition consultant. Based out of Tucson, AZ, she is a nutrition counselor at the University of Arizona and at a local HIV clinic where she also teaches a monthly cooking class. Read her blog and recipes at ChristyWilsonNutrition.com and connect with her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest.