Victual Files: La Taqueria Mexicana

If you like to visit different towns to take in and experience the local culture, there’s not a better way to do it than to test out the local food. A community is defined by what they eat and how they eat together. Especially in small towns, the available food is a large part of the definition of that community itself. Anytime we travel, we try to find out where the locals eat. You’ll usually get the best food, the best value, and the heart of what makes the community so much different than others.

The food culture in Texas follows no general rules, as each local town could best identify with BBQ or homestyle cuisine or even Mexican food. In the Old Town area of Graham is home to a non-so-hidden but probably mostly unknown treasure:  La Taqueria Mexicana.

Right on 4th street, residents have probably driven by it hundreds of times without much thought at all. Those who haven’t ventured in have really done themselves a disservice, though, because in the unassuming and relatively small taco shack you’ll find a delectable meal with “authentico” written all over it.

First of all, any Mexican food place that serves menudo on Sundays is as authentic as it gets. For those who aren’t familiar with menudo, it’s a stew that’s noted for its ability to help calm the aching head and rumbling gut of a late-night Saturday spent on the bottom side of a beer bottle. It’s not for the faint of heart, though. Menudo is a spicy broth made with chilis, tons of herbs and spices, and glistens with fat that’s rendered from its main ingredient: tripas, or tripe. Specifically, menudo is made with the honeycomb reticulum tripas from a beef’s second stomach. That’s right…one of the best hangover cures in Texas and all points south is a spicy beef stomach stew. Sounds disgusting, right? It’s definitely an acquired taste, but if you appreciate real Mexican cuisine and don’t pale at the sight of offal on your plate, then give menudo a try.

I’m not here today for the menudo at Taqueria Mexicana, though. It’s the tacos. If you like tacos (and every non-insane human loves tacos), then this is the place you need to head.

When you walk in the front door, you see the kitchen behind a front counter, and off to the right you have a small dining area.

Taqueria Mexicana has a solid reputation around town as a great place for breakfast burritos (which are more like the size of what we consider to be a taco). There’s nothing wrong at all with coming here for those, because they really are outstanding. Your choices for breakfast burritos include:

Pick either egg with meat or potato with meat. You can’t go wrong with these, although I’m a big fan of the potato with chorizo and egg. A closer look at the full menu:

This is the first page but you can see that you’ve got a pretty good choice of how you want your dish. I’m here for the taquitos, or little tacos. They are served on corn tortillas, which are made fresh back in the back. If you order the burrito, you get a flour tortilla, which is also made in the back. I love either one, and depending on my mood I’ll order either or both. Specifically, I’m here for the tacos al pastor.

Tacos al pastor are made with pork over a rotisserie. The meat is cooked similarly to the way that gyro meat in greek cuisine is made. The meat is cut into small bite-sized bits with just a perfect amount of chewiness and toothiness to make you want to take as many chews as possible to extract the most flavor.

Fresh onion and cilantro highlight the spicy flavors on the tacos al pastor.

While I was there, I went ahead and picked up a handful of the brisket tacos, too. It’s a different flavor profile completely, but it’s a formidable back up to the tacos al pastor on the menu

A close-up of the tacos al pastor:

Roll this over so you have a tight cigar, and you have a compact blast of nuclear Mexican flavor. The soft chewiness of the meat, the crunchy fresh onion, and the perfume of the fresh cilantro is unbeatable.

This is the part that I love…the mouth-coating grease from the pork falls right out the back. The seasonings, a mixture of chili, cumin, and oregano, make for a finger-licking cleanup.

Those brisket tacos I was talking about? They make a great mild compliment to the spicy pork.

Laying these out, you can see the perfect amount of meat, laid perfectly into the center of the taco.  No cheese, no sour cream, no ancillary or superfluous filling to take away or confuse the flavor.

Other menu items of note:

-The gorditas are incredible. They take the same meat as the tacos and put them in a purse of masa (like the texture of a tamale, but not steamed and round like a large ravioli).

-If you think you can handle it, try the chicharrones on your taco. Those are “pig rinds”, or pork skin cut into strips. The texture is like stiff gelatin.  Unless you’ve had them before and know you like them, go ahead and hold off on those until your third or fourth trip to TM.

-The salsa (labeled as “big container of hot sauce” on the menu) is superb. They serve a single serving with each taco/burrito, but you can also buy it in bulk. It’s fresh and delicious.

-You can buy the flour tortillas by the dozen. Homemade tortillas are unbeatable anyway, but the ones at Taqueria Mexicana really are tasty.

-During the week, they have lunch specials served with rice and beans.

Authentic. Homemade. Delicious. Taqueria Mexicana in Graham, Texas.

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WGD Brisket Sauce

Out here in Arcadia, a local group hosts an annual event called the Wild Game Dinner every December. We have a lot of hunters out here anyway, but the WGD is a celebration of our hunting heritage. Over 1500 people are served a variety of wild game dishes, including venison, birds, pork, BBQ brisket, beans, and chili. It’s an impressive show, and takes about three months to prepare.

One of the best kept secrets is the brisket sauce we use. Right here and right now, you are going to see how this tasty sauce comes together.

It’s called “brisket sauce” because it’s not bbq sauce. It’s soupy, almost like tomato soup with a kick. The other main point is that you have to use the drippings from the brisket you are cooking. That’s important so you are able to blend the flavors of your meat with the sauce that’s going on it. The marriage is unmistakable…if you are going to do sauce, this is the way to do it.

What you’ll need:


-3/4 cup of drippings (or as much of the drippings you can get, and filled with beef broth to ¾c

-2 cups of Heinz tomato sauce, brand specific

-1/4 c Worchestershire

-1/4c fresh lemon juice (don’t get the bottled stuff…squeeze it yourself)

-1/3 c apple cider vinegar

-1/3 c brown sugar (dark or light, your choice)

-1 tsp of onion powder

-1/2-1tsp cayenne pepper (your choice…1/2 tsp has a nice kick. Be careful on this, though. It will sneak up on you if you get it too hot)

As you collect the drippings, you’ll have some “stuff’ left over in the juice. Get a metal strainer and run all of the liquid thru that strainer (except the ketchup). You’ll pick up a lot of the flavor by running it thru the strainer, and can smash out the good stuff w/o the pulp.

Start with the drippings. If you don’t have ¾ cup, then supplement with beef broth.


Lemon juice


Apple cider vinegar:


Worcestershire. In Texas, we say “wore-stir-shur”, but the correct pronunciation is “wore-CHEST-uhr-shuhr”. It’s rotted sardines with water and salt, clarified. No shit. The Vietnamese have a similar product called “Nuoc mam” that’s the same thing, but much more fishy. Another topic, another day.


This is our liquid:


Pour the liquid into a sauce pan. Add 2c of ketchup.


Add your onion powder and cayenne (just do 1/2tsp at first. As it blends, add more if you like, but take it easy at first. Don’t ruin the sauce by trying to be tough).


1/3 cup of brown sugar. I’m using light brown sugar here so it’s not so sweet, but dark brown sugar is fine if you like more of molasses flavor. The difference is somewhat negligible.


Heat this over medium heat. We want it hot, but not rolling. If you get it too hot, it will break and separate, and then you’ve got a mess. The consistency we are looking for is runny drips that coat the back of a spoon.


When it gets hot, turn off the heat and let it start to cool.


I love these containers for serving sauce. You can get them for about a buck at Bed, Bath, and Beyond or any other kitchen store. Use a funnel to avoid a mess.


This sauce will be kinda thick, so when you cut the tip off the nozzle make sure you cut it deep so you don’t have to squeeze really hard for it to come out, but you want it restricted enough so the sauce doesn’t just fall out.


If you are going to sauce your brisket, this is the way to do it. WGD Brisket Sauce.

Dad’s Mustard Brisket

Of all the things I cook, the most requested recipe is brisket. As a Texan, it should be required in order to graduate high school to know how to properly cook a brisket. It doesn’t have to be smoked, but right before they hand you a diploma, if you can’t answer “slow and long” to the question of how a brisket should be cooked, they should send you back to class.

My brisket is a world-stopper. You’ve never had BBQ quite like this, and the key is yellow mustard. Not fancy brown or Dijon mustard, but plain ol’ French’s mustard. Here’s my secret, though: This isn’t my recipe. It’s my dad’s. When he first told me how he was doing his brisket, I just about squeezed my eyeballs out of my head squinting at him. Sure enough, though, he was right. He’s right about a lot of things that I challenge him on, but none moreso than mustard brisket. Here’s to you, dad.

I’ve never officially gone thru this procedure before because of one major component, and we might as well tackle it head-on right out of the chute. To properly cook a brisket, you’ve got to dedicate an entire day to doing it. Not a “day” as in “when the sun is up”, rather a full 24 hours. An entire rotation of the friggin Earth. If you aren’t willing to put in the time, sacrifice some sleep, and do this right then don’t bother with it. Go get yourself a nice margarita and rent Brokeback Mountain. When you get started on this, take notes of time and do it right. Don’t come bitching to me if you pull this thing after the sun goes down and it tastes like shit. Not my problem. You’ve been warned.

Your timeline is:

Day 1: Brine for 4-6 hours, up to overnight

Day 2: Marinate overnight

Day 3: Smoking

4-6 hours unwrapped

12-14 hours wrapped

4-7 hours in the cooler

Example:

1) Put the brisket on at noon unwrapped

2) Wrap it at 6pm

3) Put it in the cooler at 7am

4) Serve at noon.

24 hours.

Good so far?  Good.

Now that we have the unpleasantness of the requirements out of the way, let’s get to the basics of Texas BBQ beef. The brisket was just a trash piece of meat until just a few decades ago because no one knew how to cook it right. For reference, picture a delicious bovine:

The brisket is the cut just above the front legs. Think of it as your chest if you were to get down on all fours. Because of where it is, more than half of the entire body weight of the animal sits on this piece of meat. Therefore, it has to be strong, long meat fibers that are filled with fat and connective tissue. In addition, there are three different muscles that come in, and therefore three different meat fiber directions. This makes things really difficult to manage, especially when it comes to cutting the finished roast.

Ranchers would just toss this thing because it was so hard to cook. There’s an entire cap of fat on one side, and all three muscles are separated by  layers of fat and membranes that are really deep and hard to get to before it’s cooked. Even then, you can easily mess up the presentation by cutting it wrong. The direction of the cut is almost as important as how it’s cooked. About 50 years ago, though, ranchers started noticing that their Mexican hands were taking the briskets and making incredible dishes with them. They figured out that what they were doing was cooking it over low heat for a long time in a braise. They took the braised meat and cooked it over dry heat, and the modern Texas BBQ was born.

Now that I’ve officially scared hell out of you for cooking this thing, let’s get things prepped. We’ll need:

-an untrimmed brisket. UNTRIMMED by the butcher, that is. Don’t get a trimmed brisket.

-Bottle of Allegro marinade

-French’s yellow mustard (generic will do; I’m using French’s here so you see it’s not anything special)

-An oven bag

-Your favorite BBQ rub

That’s it. Not a whole bunch to this thing. Your brisket needs to be untrimmed. Competition BBQueers will try to tell you to trim a brisket, but that’s just because they are trying to skip on time. Keep it untrimmed…we are going to need as much fat as we can get. What size?  Hell, I don’t know.  About this big will do:

Doesn’t really matter. When you go to pick it out, what you are going to be looking for is a solid cap of fat on the backside of the brisket (they always put the label on the opposite side because it’s prettier). I had someone tell me one time that they went to Central Market and bought a “prime” brisket. I’m not sure that it even exists. This is meant for trashy cuts of beef, so the sinewy-est, fatty, marbled up slab of brisket you can find is perfect. If you spend more than $2.50/lbs for your brisket, you got taken. Look for it on sale, and buy it when it’s around $1/lbs and freeze it.

Take your brisket out of the plastic and rinse it under water to get off all the extra blood. Let’s examine:

You see the long meat fibers here? They lie just under that membrane on top of the meat. Don’t peel it off…I just want to point out how the meat runs for later. We are going to cut AGAINST the grain when we serve.

I pulled back that membrane a little bit to get a good shot. See how the direction of the fibers curves away? When we start cutting, we’ll need to look for that, and stop when we get to the point where we aren’t cutting against those grains.

The fat cap:

One of my favorite tools is the Reynolds turkey bag. They are just plastic bags that you can marinate/brine your meat in. Take one out, and put your brisket in, with the fat cap side DOWN.

I like to put it into a pan in case there’s a leak in the bag, and there’s always a leak in the bag.

Now, take that Allegro marinade and pour in enough so that it comes up about halfway up the brisket.

Make sure that it’s the fat cap side that’s down, and not the meat fibers. What we are trying to do is use that salt and acid that’s in the Allegro to break down the fat and the muscle fibers around the fat. If you brine this with the meat side down, you are going to turn the meat into mush, and we don’t want that. Seal up the back and put into the fridge for 4-6 hours, up to overnight.

When you are finished, pull it out and lay it into a pan big enough to hold the whole thing. This is key…you are going to be flipping it in just a bit. Start with the fat cap side DOWN.

Get your yellow mustard out and squeeze LIBERALLY all over this thing, and then smear it with your hands so that it’s thick all the way around. Go ahead and rub it in kinda hard into the cracks and crevices where you can get your fingers. I always start mine out right:

Coated:

When you get a good thick layer on it, grab your favorite bbq rub and sprinkle it LIBERALLY all over. You don’t have to use the Arcadian Rub, but you want to make sure you use one with some brown sugar, salt, and spicy cayenne. You know what? Just use the damn Arcadian Rub.

Flip it over and get the other side as well (fat cap back down). DON’T RUB IT. Just sprinkle on top of the mustard. If you’ve disturbed the mustard coating, make sure it’s even and then re-sprinkle to cover.

A close-up:

Now, we need to put this back into the fridge overnight. Don’t skimp. Needs to be overnight. If you put it in unwrapped, though, your fridge is going to smell like this for weeks, so grab a new trashbag (unscented) and put the whole thing in, pan and all. Seal it up and let it sit in the cold.

After a night in the fridge, poke that bad boy’s head out and take a look. The rub has gotten wet with the mustard and has made an incredible coat around the meat. That will be important for the next few hours as we slow smoke this

Close-up:

When you take it to your smoker, make sure you’ve let your smoker go enough so you are regulated to about 225deg constantly. Don’t try to singe this or sear it at first. It’s totally unnecessary, despite what you may hear from BBQ “experts” on tv. Just make sure you have a hard rolling smoke going, and your temp is around 225deg. 250deg at the highest.

I’m using mesquite.  Not pecan and especially not oak, which is good for firewood and that’s about it.  Use mesquite wood on your beef.  I could almost accept someone mixing in some pecan, but it’s not needed.  Just use mesquite.  Stop asking questions.  Use mesquite.

Put it into the grill with the fat cap UP. UP.

There are differing opinions on whether or not you should smoke fat side down or up. The folks who say “down” say that it helps keep the meat from charring. However, it you run your smoker right, it should never char since we aren’t getting above 250deg. Also, if the cap of fat is up, then it will melt down inthru the meat fibers, coating them with the delicious fat and Allegro brine. Does it matter? In the long run, probably not. However, this is how I do it and I know it works. Try it this way and see if it’s not good. If not, do it however you want to do it. This is America, baby.

After 4 hours:

After six hours (with a couple of sweet potatoes thrown on to smoke for dinner):

You notice how black it is? That’s GOOD. We call that “bark” in the BBQ world. It’s the blackened layer right around the outside that has all the seasoning flavor from the mustard mixed with our rub. After six hours, we need to wrap this. You can go a little longer if you like, but I think six hours is plenty.

Get your handy prep table out, and lay two layers of heavy duty foil (the long package). Lift your brisket right out of the grill and onto the foil.

Fold the first layer of foil around the briskets. Fold it TIGHT and do it so that all corners are covered. I start at the bottom, fold across like you are putting a diaper on a baby (old style diaper on a baby, that is).

Do both ends, tucking in each loose piece, pinching them together, and making sure they are sealed up TIGHT.

When you get it all sealed up, a nice fold or pinch will keep it together. Just like a good marriage.

You might have some spots left exposed after the first wrap. No worries..we’ve got three more layers to go. Second layer from the bottom:

After both bottom layers go on, take another large piece of foil and wrap all the way around the top, covering that hole at the top, tuck under, but make sure you fold corners so that it fits like it should. Do that twice. You should have used four sheets of foil so far.

Then you’ve got your tight wrapped brisket, ready to go on for the long burn. Again, make sure you are watching your fire constantly and keeping it between 225-250deg.

Back on it goes. Let’s add up the time so far:

-Allegro brine (4-6 hours, potentially overnight)

-Mustard and rub down (overnight)

-4-6 hours on the smoker at 225-250deg.

Up next, this needs to go for 12-14 hours wrapped at the same temps. Crazy, right? Yeah, just trust me on this.

After the smoker has done it’s work, the pretty foil will go from a nice golden yellow to a dark brown.

After 12-14 hours, take the entire brisket and place it in to your BBQ Cooler and let it rest for up to seven hours.

Do NOT open the cooler or disturb the foil until you are ready to cut.  That’s important.  Let it rest, and the rest is just as important as the other steps.  Don’t skip on this…let it rest.  Up to 7 hours max, no less than 4 hours.

When you are ready to carve, here’s a little trick.  You’ve got the fat side up still, so reach into the cooler and either rip the foil with your fingers or take a knife and cut the foil open.  You should be able to pick it up from underneath and flip it out onto your carving board.  However, get a pan so you can collect the drippings before you flip it out.  I use the same pan that I used to marinate the brisket.  Just tip it so the drippings run out, flip your brisket out onto your board, and then collect as much of the drippings as possible.  If you have some drippings that come out onto the board, go ahead and try to rake those into your pan also.  It will make the carving so much less messy.

Big ol’ slab of beef.

From the bird’s eye view:

When you start to cut, keep in mind how the meat fibers run.  Again, we are going to cut against the grain.  There’s a little secret to make sure you do this correctly.

a) start at the “skinny” end of the brisket

b) start on one corner, where you think you need to start

c) cut off the top of the corner on a bias (or on an angle) to make sure you are starting right.  If you chose the wrong corner, you can easily go to the other corner w/o too much of a do-over.

How do you know if you’ve cut it against the grain?  The part you cut should fall apart, with the meat fibers being really short.

I like to use an electric knife.  Honed steel is good, but don’t foresake the precision of an electric knife here.  Start making about 1/4″-1/2″ slices along that same line that you started on just a bit of a bias.

Excuse the blurriness, but you get the idea.

This is what I’m talking about being “against the grain”.  See the short meat fibers now that seem to fall apart?  That’s what you want.  This will be so tender that the meat will literally fall apart when you try to pick it up.

Here’s your brisket slice, about as whole as you can get it.  It’s ok if it falls apart.  It’s going to be so good and tender, it doesn’t matter if it stays in long slices.

Continue on until you get to the point where the meat fibers begin to turn.  You’ll know you are there when you get to the big thick part of the brisket, and your slices look like they are slanted.  Then, turn the brisket 90degrees and start cutting right across the top, which will now be against the grain.  You’ve got two different muscles in here, but they’ll both be going the same way.

A close-up of the muscle, with a thin membrane separating.

Here are the long meat fibers.  Cut against then so your knife is perpendicular to the muscles.

Close-up, of the slices.

When it’s all sliced up, you have should be able to peel some of the extra fat off and keep it in a pile up at the top.  Plus, you have tons of extras left over.

There’s all the brisket cut up.

That fat still has tons of potential to it.  Let’s not throw it away.

If you take your fat trimmings and put them into a skillet, you can start to render some of the extra fat off.  Brown on both sides for a bit…

Then add a little beef broth or some of the drippings back to the pan and let it suck as much of the fat out as possible.

Then take that hot grease and drippings and pour it right back over the sliced brisket.  Cover it with foil, put it into the oven at 170deg for a few minutes just to keep warm until it’s time to serve.

Presentation on the plate:

In the pan, you’ll have this deliciousness:

I’m not opposed to putting sauce on this, but if you are going to use sauce, let’s use the WGD brisket sauce and not just some sugary sweet crap off the shelf.

That’s it.  My dad’s mustard brisket, cooked for a full 24 hours and about as perfect as Texas BBQ can be.