Say “Mexican steaks” and probably the first thing you think of is fajitas made with sizzling skirt steak. As good as fajitas are, it might surprise you to discover that traditional Mexican steak dishes are often more sophisticated. They feature juicy, tender steaks like rib-eyes, T-bones, and New York strips and get punched up with rich, bold spices or sauces.
I’ve enjoyed many steak dishes in Mexico that deliver big, meaty flavor but that also have south-of-the-border additions, such as chiles and Mexican cheeses. Often more elegant in taste and presentation than the rustic Mexican dishes most of us are familiar with, these steaks are easy to recreate at home and offer an intriguing twist to the traditional American steakhouse meal.
Size matters—thinner’s better
The most obvious difference in steak dishes down south is that the steaks are generally cut thinner than those served in American restaurants—often no more than 1/2 inch thick. As a result, portion sizes are smaller—generally 6 to 8 ounces, compared to the 12- to 14-ounce portions seen on American plates. This is not to say that all steaks served in Mexico are thin—I have had thick T-bones in Chihuahua, smothered with chiles nearly as mild and sweet as bell peppers; and in Sonora I was served a 1-pound steak cut from the center of the tenderloin. But the custom of serving thinner cuts like those in these recipes leaves room for side dishes yet still fills the plate and the craving for red meat without breaking the bank or the diet.
Thinner cuts cook faster as well, making some of these dishes easy to serve on a weeknight. Whether prepared with a simple spice rub or a more elaborate sauce, all of these steaks take less than five minutes to pan-sear, grill, or broil.
Adding depth of flavor
What sets these steaks apart from their American counterparts is the earthy flavors and spice that comes from adding Mexican ingredients. In all of these, that means some form of chile—but that doesn’t mean all these dishes are hot. Depending on the variety and form (see chile profiles below), chiles offer a broad range of flavors, from fruity to smoky. As you’ll see in the Steak with Three-Chile Sauce recipe, incorporating more than one type of chile in a dish is a way to achieve a rounded flavor, with many notes.
A sauce reduction, as in the Steak with Red Onion, Wine & Port Sauce recipe, is another example of the depth of flavor attainable in Mexican cooking. This dish comes from the upscale neuva cocina Mexicana tradition—Mexico’s answer to modern fusion cooking. It results in an elegant entrée that you might serve at a party, showing that Mexican food is far more than simple bean- and tortilla-based dishes.
Sauces are not the only flavor addition to steaks in Mexico. The Steak Adobo is a good example of simple grilled red meat punched up with a spice rub. By first brushing the meat with lime juice, you can add a bright, subtle flavor to the steak. Don’t apply the lime juice more than 15 minutes before the meat hits the heat, though, as even a little lime juice can begin to chemically “cook” the meat, which will change the texture and make it more difficult to brown.