Mexican restaurants typically use skirt steak, flank steak, or flap meat for carne asada. These cheaper cuts of beef have great flavor when marinated and grilled over high heat. The term “carne asada” literally means grilled meat in Spanish.
Why Use Skirt Steak, Flank Steak, or Flap Meat?
There are a few reasons why Mexican restaurants opt for skirt steak, flank steak, or flap meat when making carne asada:
- They are affordable – Skirt steak, flank steak, and flap meat are relatively inexpensive cuts of beef. This allows restaurants to keep costs down while still delivering delicious grilled meat.
- They are flavorful – While being affordable, these cuts are also very flavorful. They have a robust, beefy taste that pairs perfectly with bold Mexican seasonings and marinades.
- They grill well – These thin, fibrous cuts of meat thrive when cooked over high, dry heat. The meat remains juicy while developing a lovely char.
More expensive cuts like ribeye or strip steak would be cost-prohibitive for most Mexican eateries to use for carne asada. The selected cuts balance economy with full-bodied flavor.
Skirt steak comes from the diaphragm muscles of the cow. It is a long, thin cut that provides a lot of surface area for marinating and developing flavor. When grilled, skirt steak delivers excellent beefy taste. It can be a little chewier than other steaks, but is ideal for slicing or chopping into pieces for tacos, burritos, nachos, and more.
Advantages of Skirt Steak
- Inexpensive cut
- Thin profile absorbs marinade well
- Beefy flavor
- Texture stands up to chopping/shredding
Disadvantages of Skirt Steak
- Can be slightly tougher than other steaks
- More limited supply – only two skirt steaks per cow
Flank steak comes from the bottom abdominal area of the cow. It is another thin, flat cut known for developing immense flavor when marinated and grilled over high heat. Flank steak has a distinct grain so it must be sliced against the grain to ensure tenderness. When cut properly, it provides perfect bites for tacos, fajitas, and burritos.
Advantages of Flank Steak
- Inexpensive option
- Lean cut
- Soaks up marinades extremely well
- Uniform shape for even cooking
Disadvantages of Flank Steak
- Can be tougher if not sliced against the grain
- Grainy texture is not ideal for all applications
Flap meat, sometimes called sirloin tips, comes from the bottom sirloin area right above the flank. It offers marbling for flavor and moisture along with a loose grain that provides tenderness. Flap meat is an excellent choice for carne asada, absorbing spice rubs and marinades while delivering succulent, juicy bites off the grill.
Advantages of Flap Meat
- Inexpensive, budget-friendly option
- Tender, looser grain compared to flank steak
- More marbling than skirt or flank steak
- Absorbent texture takes on flavors
Disadvantages of Flap Meat
- Can sometimes be inconsistent in thickness
- Less uniform shape than flank steak
Other Cuts Used for Carne Asada
While skirt steak, flank steak, and flap meat are the most common choices, some Mexican restaurants do utilize other cuts of beef for their carne asada:
- Hanger steak – Also from the diaphragm area, hanger steak has a loose grain and robust flavor.
- Tri-tip – From the bottom sirloin, tri-tip is a small triangular cut that is flavorful and responds well to fast grilling.
- Flat iron steak – This shoulder cut offers good marbling and tenderness at a lower price point.
- Top sirloin – A very lean, inexpensive cut that can work for carne asada applications.
While tasty alternatives, these cuts may be less commonly used due to their small size, irregular shape, limited supply, or higher price point compared to flank, skirt, and flap meat.
How to Choose the Best Cut for Carne Asada
So how should a restaurant decide between skirt steak, flank steak, and flap meat for their carne asada? Here are some factors to consider when selecting the right cut of beef:
- Budget – Skirt steak is often the most affordable, while flap meat is priced higher than flank steak on average.
- Application – If serving whole pieces, flank steak’s uniform shape may be preferable. For chopped/shredded meat, skirt steak is ideal.
- Availability – Only two skirt steaks per cow, so flank or flap may be easier to source.
- Fat content – Flap meat has more marbling than skirt or flank steak.
- Texture – Skirt steak is chewier while flank steak can be grainy if sliced incorrectly.
- Flavor – All three cuts become robustly flavorful when marinated and grilled.
Testing out all three options can help identify the right fit based on budget, usage, and flavor preferences. Skirt steak, flank steak, and flap meat all make excellent carne asada with the proper marinade and high-heat grilling techniques.
Popular Carne Asada Marinade Ingredients
While the cut of beef is important, the marinade really makes carne asada shine. Here are some popular ingredients used in carne asada marinades:
- Orange juice
- Lime juice
- Beer or Mexican lager
- Soy sauce
- Olive oil
- Vegetable or avocado oil
- White vinegar
- Tomato juice
- Pineapple juice
Seasonings & Spices
- Chili powder
- Mexican oregano
- Crushed red pepper
- Black pepper
The acidity in citrus juices and vinegar helps tenderize the meat and impart flavor. Oils carry the other marinade ingredients into the beef. Spices and herbs add classic Mexican flair. Combining these ingredients creates a well-balanced marinade that infuses the steak with big taste.
Carne Asada Marinating Tips
Follow these tips for getting the most out of a carne asada marinade:
- Marinate for at least 1-2 hours, or up to overnight in the refrigerator.
- Place steaks in a shallow dish and pour marinade overtop to maximize coverage.
- Flip/rotate steaks occasionally while marinating.
- Don’t reuse marinade after raw meat has been soaked in it.
- Pat steaks dry before grilling to help get a good sear.
- Let meat come to room temp before grilling for more even cooking.
A properly marinated steak should look moist and have plenty of spices/herbs clinging to the exterior. The meat will grill up flavorful and juicy.
How to Grill Carne Asada
Grilling is key for carne asada. Use these techniques for perfect char and tenderness:
- Get grill very hot, ~500F if using gas or charcoal grill.
- Cook over direct high heat for just 2-4 minutes per side.
- Aim for lovely grill marks and crusty exterior.
- Let meat rest 5-10 minutes before slicing across the grain.
- Skirt and flank steak are usually cooked to medium doneness since they are thin.
- Thicker flap meat can be cooked medium rare.
High heat from grilling sears the outside while keeping the inside juicy. Be sure not to overcook or the meat will become tough. Letting it rest allows juices to redistribute through the steak.
Serving Ideas for Carne Asada
Carne asada makes a fantastic filling or topping for all kinds of Mexican dishes. Here are some serving ideas:
- Chopped or sliced for tacos and burritos
- Diced and mixed into nachos
- Added to quesadillas
- Served whole with rice and beans
- Chopped over salads or bowls
- Thinly sliced for fajitas
- Cubed in soups and stews
The boldly seasoned, char-grilled beef pairs perfectly with creamy guacamole, fresh salsas, melty cheese, beans, rice, and more!
For authentic carne asada flavor, Mexican restaurants rely on affordable cuts like skirt steak, flank steak, and flap meat. Their thin profile, beefy taste, and responsiveness to marinades makes them ideal candidates. A zesty marinade of citrus, peppers, cilantro, and other spices infuses the meat with big Mexican flavor. High-heat grilling adds smoky char while cooking the steak perfectly. The resulting carne asada can be served whole or chopped/sliced to fill tacos, nachos, burritos, and beyond for an incredible taste of Mexico.