I recently visited Tucson, Arizona, determined that in between all the meetings and planning sessions and other work-related chores I would track down and sample carne seca, which, by all accounts, is one of Tucson's unique delicacies.
It turned out to be harder than I expected. My colleagues were all up for a big Mexican meal our first night in town, good Mexican food being something that's hard to come by on the South Carolina coast, so I spent some quality time on the web and came up with a list of likely restaurants near our hotel. And, we seemed in luck: there were at least 3 highly-recommended Mexcian spots only a mile or two away, and all of them offered carne seca on their menus.
A word of warning about Mexican restaurants in Tucson. Most of them--the good ones anyway--are closed on Mondays. We learned this the hard way as we drove to each of the three recommended restaurants in succession and found their parking lots empty and all the lights off. We settled for a touristy-looking Mexican spot that was open but otherwise had nothing going for it. The lackluster menu was devoid of carne seca, and even the margaritas were awful, ruined by the high fructose corn syrup of a bad prepackaged mix.
The next morning, our client asked us, "So, do you like Mexican food? There's a pretty good place just a few blocks from here." I figured my colleagues would lobby for something else, since we'd just had Mexcan the night before, and it was pretty crappy Mexican, at that. So, I jumped in with a loud "yes" before they could say anything. I feared it was going to be another tacos-and-bottled salsa joint. It wasn't. It was really good, starting with the hot, smoky salsa that awaited us on the table. And carne seca featured prominently on the menu.
Carne Seca (literally, "dried beef" in Spanish) is made from strips of flank steak that are marinated in lime juice, dried in the open air, then shredded and browned in vegetable oil along with chiles, onions, and tomatoes. At El Charro, one of Tucson's oldest Mexican restaurants, the marinated beef is placed in wire cages and dried in the sun on the roof of the restaurant (see a photo here).
I'm not sure if sun-on-the-roof is how it is done at Casa Molina, where we ate lunch, but the beef was definitely marinated and dried, and it had a potent effect on the flavor. I ordered a carne seca burrito "enchilada style" (with a savory red chile sauce over the top), and the the filling had a wonderful aged flavor that many would find too strong. Indeed, not knowing exactly what to expect, I was surprised by how pungent the flavor was. After a few bites, though, the strong taste began to grow on me. Halfway through I was absolutely stuffed, but I couldn't stop. I pulled the meat from the second half of the burrito and ate it all.
Surprisingly, in a world teeming with books that trace the historical roots of virtually every obscure dish, and food blogs where tens of thousands of recreational eaters delve into every nook and cranny of food trivial, there seems to be very little written about carne seca apart from a few newspaper reviews of Tucson restaurants. But, I've had it once and I'm hooked. Now I just need an excuse to go back to perform more "research".
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