A Cal-Mex Culinary Detour

Other Cuisines

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I've lived in California for almost 40 years, and it wasn't until maybe a decade ago that I found out that there was such a thing as "Cal-Mex" cuisine. Or rather, that people outside the state called the Mexican cuisine in California "Cal-Mex". I knew of Tex-Mex, of course, I was a big fan of Chevy's in my youth, but it took my going outside California to realize that "Cal-Mex" cuisine was considered to exist. Truth be told, I'm still not 100% sure that that's the case.

Don't get me wrong, Mexican restaurants in California do have their own style of food, but California is a big state, and these styles vary by region. In the Bay Area, where I live, for example, if you go to any taqueria and ask for a burrito, you'll get a "mission burrito", with meat of your choice, rice and beans and salsa. Super burritos usually include cheese, sour cream and guacamole. Apparently, this is not what's standard in other parts of the state.

Tacos, on the other hand, seem to be far more whimsical. They do vary a lot depending on the taqueria or taco truck you visit. I've never been particularly big on tacos myself, though I ate them a lot at my corner Mexican restaurant as I didn't really like their burritos, but recently I tried them at a taco truck in East Oakland and I've totally fallen in love with them.

I'd been hankering for tacos every since I had those, so I decided to try to make my own. And I was making them anyway, I figured if they were good, I'd write them out as Cal-Mex cuisine.

Street Steak Tacos

Street Steak Tacos

This particular tacos are said to be "San Diego style", and San Diegans seem to believe they have the best tacos in the state. Which they might, for all I know. There didn't seem to be anything particularly unusual about the marinade for the meat - there are lots of recipes out there, and this one appealed to me as I had most of the ingredients at home. Plus I like orange flavors in marinades. It was pretty good and everyone liked the flavor.

Carne asada tacos are usually made with skirt or flank steaks - two cuts that have become very expensive. I made them with top sirloin because it's what was on sale this week and I had a lot left over. I'm not terribly fond of top-sirloin because it lacks the chewiness of the other cuts, but if you are dicing it it doesn't matter too much. Tri-tip would also be a good choice. You can marinade the whole steak, grill it and then cut it - but I decided I would just saute the diced meat instead as it cooks very quickly that way. It worked very well.

The toppings included are the ones we used in some combination or another - not everyone here likes all of them. I tried all except for the cheese (which is not really traditional for tacos) and I was pretty impressed. They weren't anywhere near as good as the ones from the taco truck I fell in love with, but good enough for a homemade version.


Street Steak Tacos


    For the steak

  • 1.5 - 2 lbs beef steak, trimmed and diced
  • 2 Tbsp red wine vinegar
  • 2 Tbsp water
  • 1 Tbsp avocado or cooking oil
  • 1 Tbsp orange juice
  • 1 Tbsp lime juice
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 Tbsp chopped cilantro
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp chili powder
  • 1 tsp Mexican oregano
  • 1 tsp salt
  • ground pepper to taste

    For the tacos

  • 1 Tbsp cooking oil
  • 16 white corn tortillas, street taco size
  • shredded cheese (optional)
  • pico de gallo (optional)
  • shredded cabbage
  • avocado
  • sour cream
  • lime juice
  • chopped cilantro


Place the steak and all the ingredients for the marinade in a large bowl or freezer bag. Mix well, making sure the marinade coats all the beef and refrigerate, cover or seal and refrigerate overnight.

Grill the diced beef or saute it on oil in a frying pan. In a separate pan, heat the tortillas on both sides, in batches as needed. Layer 2 tortillas together and then spoon a generous amount of steak on each tortilla. Top with desired toppings and serve.

Adapted from Darcey Orson's recipe at Foodie and Wine

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