I’ve been hearing a lot of complaints about San Miguel supermarket meat lately. And I must admit I don’t have much sympathy. Because I think there’s a lot better place to buy meat, particularly beef, and particularly steak. With the odd exception, usually where convenience is the big factor, I stopped buying supermarket beef quite a while ago. And I have no regrets.

I know Mexican butcher shops are intimidating places. Maybe it’s the way they hang their knives from the ceiling. Or all of those hatchets and cleavers. Or that weird saw that you only see in butcher shops and Jennifer Jason Leigh movies. Or that big, tall glass case out front that makes it seem like you’re doing business through a window.

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Plus there’s the language barrier. Even if you speak fluent restaurant Spanish, you may speak nary a word of butcher shop Spanish. I know I sure struggled with it. And still do to a certain extent. But a few years ago I read something called Choice Cut Or Mystery Meat? by a woman called Karen Hursh Graber and it gave me the knowledge and confidence to kick the supermarket habit and embrace the Mexican butcher.

Support your local carniceria. Please.

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When you first walk into a Mexican butcher shop, you’ll see a few things. There will probably be a price list. There will possibly be a diagram showing the names of the different beef cuts. And there will definitely be a showcase displaying a few of those different cuts. Inside the showcase there will be what Karen Hursh Graber says “seem to resemble the Texas Chain Saw Massacre”. It may contain a few slices of milanesa, some very thinly cut steaks that you won’t be sure where on the cow they came from, a lean (and mean to the molars) prime rib roast, and some slices of shank.

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Ignore almost all beef in the showcase. Those cuts are for people who grew up with Mexican beef. You were probably raised on U.S., Canadian or some other country’s beef and your tastebuds and teeth are accustomed to something almost completely different.

The nice thing about old fashioned butchers (and San Miguel butchers are very old fashioned butchers) is they have a walk-in meat locker. It’s not as big as the one in Rocky (though I do start to dumdididumdididumdididum Eye Of The Tiger and clench my fists when they swing open the door) but it’s big enough to have almost any cut of beef you might want and, if the butcher doesn’t have it, he’ll probably order it for you.

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Not only that, Mexican butchers will not just cut, they will trim, they will slice, they will cube, they will blend, they will chop, they will debone, they will hammer, they will grind, they may marinate, they may even smoke your beef for you. But first you have to know what to ask for, things like how not to get skirt steak when you want flank and that best starts with a diagram that Karen Hursh Graber prepared for that article I mentioned.

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The next thing you need to know about Mexican beef you probably already know. Probably found out the hard way like I did. Perhaps by buying a couple of ribeyes from a local butcher that might have brought the words shoe leather to your lips.

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The Mexican beef sold at San Miguel carnicerias is almost always local beef and local beef is often from a breed of cattle called Cebu (or Zebu), those skinny cows with the hump on their back and more chins than Alfred Hitchcock that you see driving (that’s you driving, not the cows) through the desert. The Cebu are extremely good at living in an arid environment and going for long periods without water but the beef that comes from them tends to be very lean and, therefore, very tough. Mexican beef from Central Mexico is also rarely aged, another factor that contributes to its toughness.

So my first advice about Mexican butchers is about the beef you shouldn’t buy. This advice also applies to the beef you shouldn’t buy in Mexican supermarkets though there is the odd exception such as the little glass-enclosed case in the northeast corner of the meat island at Supermercado El Comer in San Miguel de Allende which holds a small selection of very well-marbled, imported beef.

Thou should not buy prime rib roasts, sirloin roasts, strip loin steaks, rib eye steaks, porterhouse steaks or t-bone steaks from San Miguel butchers. All of these cuts require marbling from fat in order to have sufficient taste and tenderness and local cows are just too darn skinny. These cuts require a trip to Celaya or Queretaro where, even though I have a strong…bordering on intense…dislike for big box stores, I’ve found Costco has the best imported fresh beef (and the best beef hot dog) at the very best prices.

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My second advice is that you must discover the pleasure of cuts that you may have never ever experienced before. These are steak cuts that do not require marbling in order to have a rich taste but will be less tender than the steaks you have probably grown up with. And there’s one more difference. They’ll cost less than half of what you might pay for those marbled cuts at places like Costco. So the price per pleasure produced is, in my opinion, phenomenal.

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You will probably have had some of these lean, inexpensive cuts before. Food writers call them butchers’ cuts. Casey Barber of Good Food Stories uses Ed The Walking Steak to show where on the cow some are located. They have names like tri-tip, skirt, hanger, blade, flank and flatiron. If you have eaten them, you may be like me, and have only done it in recent years. Because it’s only in recent years that many of them have become somewhat available and not ended up in burger grinds.

I spend about six months of my life in San Miguel de Allende and most of the other six in Toronto. Today I went into Loblaws Maple Leaf Gardens, once the most hallowed of Canada’s hockey halls, but now belittled to become Canada’s largest supermarket and, still today, not one of those six inexpensive steak cuts I mentioned is available. In the three butcher shops within walking distance of my Toronto home, however, at least two thirds of those cuts are always available. Why, I ask myself and all I can think of is that butcher shops cater to finicky foodies like me and the rest of the world just hasn’t discovered the joys of these steak cuts. But I confidently predict they will. And soon.

But what about in Central Mexico? What about in San Miguel de Allende? Will you find most of those cuts at local San Miguel butcher shops? Let me share with you my experiences.

I’d already had success in San Miguel carnicerias ordering brisket. Even though Mexican butchers usually sell it chopped up for stews, all I had to do was know that the whole brisket was called pecho and the exact part of the pecho I wanted was called the punto. Each time, the butcher disappeared into the walk-in, came back hugging a hunk of something that must have weighed 50 plus pounds, and cut out a perfect brisket point. By my second time, I was already telling him not to trim off so much fat.

I was now ready to purchase my favorite inexpensive steak, the flatiron, from my favorite butcher, Alberto. But what, in my best Spanglish, would I ask for?

I went to all the translation sites but they just told me plancha plana which, as much as I loved the alliteration of the words together, I figured couldn’t be right. I then went to some Spanish language food sites and two of them, who sounded like they knew what they were talking about, said that flatiron was churrasco a la plancha. Both of the sites, however, originated in South America; would the cut have the same name in Mexico?

I gathered some more info, equipping myself with literal translations of all of the flatiron steak’s other names including butler’s steak, oyster blade, book steak, lifter steak and top blade.

“under the seven or paddle bone.”

I then went to a beef butchering guide so I could find out the exact location of the flatiron cut and pass on my best Spanish translation to my butcher. It read “The flatiron encompasses the infraspinatus muscles, adjacent to the heart of the shoulder clod, under the seven or paddle bone.” Imagine what Google Translate spat back at me after typing that in.

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Now there’s one thing I love about Mexicans. They never say no. And there’s one thing I hate about Mexicans. They never say no. Alberto, my butcher, if he was American, would have just said I have absolutely no idea what the hell you’re talking about and tried to sell me some chorizo. But Alberto isn’t American and he didn’t. He brought out a massive three ring binder. With pages in English and pages in Spanish. But he didn’t quite know where the flatiron came from. I didn’t quite know where the flatiron came from. Somewhere in the shoulder he thought but I wasn’t sure. We poured over the pages, thought we might have found it and Alberto headed for the locker and brought back about a quarter of a cow. Out came his most scary Freddie Krueger, the one with the 14-inch blade, and, about five minutes later, he presented me with two steaks.

One thing I hate about Canadians. They never say no. At least this time I couldn’t. I knew they weren’t flatirons but I also knew that, chopped into cubes and braised in some red wine, peppercorns and tarragon, they’d be very tasty.

So what did I learn from the experience? Just like you shouldn’t expect cats to talk and pigs to fly, you shouldn’t expect butchers to be heart surgeons. There’s a reason cuts like flatiron, hanger and tri-tip steaks aren’t on Karen Hursh Graber’s diagram. The steaks just don’t exist in Mexico under any name and are best forgotten.

But there are a couple of cuts that Karen does illustrate and describe in detail and that San Miguel butchers will almost always be able to cut for you. Those two wonderful cuts are what, in English, we call the skirt and the flank.

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Now the first thing I’m going to tell you about these steaks that probably come from either local Cebu cows or crosses of Cebu cows is that I have no idea what Cebu cows eat (though I have diligently tried to find out). Most of their diet may actually be cactus. Really. About half of the Mexican cactus harvest goes to livestock forage. What I do know is that San Miguel butchers’ beef has the taste of grass fed cows and that requires some explanation and some adjustment.

I always struggle when I have to describe grass fed beef so I’m going to let someone else describe it. I don’t think anyone does it better than Lynne Curry in her book Pure Beef. The former vegetarian says, “I love grass fed beef for its resounding flavors. It starts out faintly sweet, like the clover stem I chewed as a kid while lying on the lawn in the summertime, then blooms with earthy and savory nuances. Even raw, its cherry-colored flesh and butter-colored fat stand apart from conventional beef. It looks and cooks, tastes and chews like no other beef I’ve had before.”

I’ll add one more thing. I’ve been battling with my brain, trying to compare the beef from grass fed cows with the beef from grain finished cows for about five years now and I’ve finally hung up the gloves. It’s the old apples and oranges argument. Or if not apples and oranges, at least apples and pears. They’re two of the most satisfying tastes that will ever touch my tongue. Satisfying and different and vive la difference.

In praise of those flanks and skirts.

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Before I talk about them individually, let me tell you how to tell flank and skirt apart. The easiest way is with the very important grain. It’s very apparent on the visual that, again, comes courtesy of Casey Barber. On the flank steak, the grain runs lengthwise. On the skirt steak, it runs widthwise. More graphically stated, the flank steak either looks like the course for the 100 metre dash or occasionally a checkerboard designed by a drunk. The skirt looks like what I call railroad tracks and Don Day’s Wife calls an accordion.

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You can see where each of them comes from on Karen Hursh Graber’s diagram. Both originate on the underside of the cow, the skirt from just behind the front legs, the flank from just in front of the hind legs.

OK, on to specifics. First the skirt. In central Mexico, it is almost always known as the arrachera and arrachera is a word every butcher in San Miguel will know.

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The skirts from each cow are about a metre long and look like they would make a nice, woven belt if you were dressing up for Day Of The Dead as a carnivore.

I learned recently from James Peterson, who wrote a book called Meat and therefore should know beef, that each cow has two long strips which are cut into arracheras, one is commonly call the inner and is slightly smaller and somewhat more desirable. The other is, of course, called the outer and contains more tough membrane. A meat cutting guide will tell you that the inside and outside skirts are the boneless portion of the diaphragm muscle attached to the sixth through twelth ribs on the underside of the short plate. Which makes me think med school might be easier than butcher school.

When the arracheras are placed in the display showcase of San Miguel carnicerias, the butcher doesn’t label or price the arracheras that come from inside or outside skirts differently and there’s no easy way visually that I know of to differentiate between them. If the carniceria is cutting some arracheras especially for you, my recommendation is you can ask for el interior but don’t be surprised if they’re not sure what you’re talking about. If the arracheras are already cut, obviously, you take whatever you get.

What you’ll usually get is a piece of meat about a half an inch thick with some very defined streaks of white fat. This is the meat that fajitas usually come from. This is the meat that Philly cheese steaks usually come from. When the butcher intends the skirt to be used for arracheras, he will usually cut it into eight or nine inch lengths which usually weigh about 200 grams each.

The other recommended steak that’s easy to find in San Miguel is the flank, a cut that will almost always be called the falda by local butchers. If you understand Spanish, you will know that when you’re talking about women’s clothing or Scottish men’s clothing the word falda also means skirt but, trust me, the butcher will not confuse it with the arrachera and should know exactly what piece of meat the falda is.

Though it’s cut a little differently on the other side of the ocean, the flank or falda is what the French call the bavette and serve in their bistros as steak frites.

If you’re as old as me and remember serving London broil to impress guests, this is where that meat usually came from (though in some geographies, top round was the standard). From Karen Hursh Graber, I also learned that falda, “…is the cut of choice for carne deshebrada (shredded meat) used to make the beef salad called salpicón, and in any number of cornmeal-based snack foods, such as taquitos and chalupas.”

The falda steak will generally be thicker than the arrachera depending on how it’s butchered. I’ve seen faldas a half inch thick and I’ve seen one an inch and a half thick. Usually though, they’ll be about 5/8 to 3/4 inches thick. Faldas are also usually a different shape than arracheras, more square than long compared to arracheras, and the average dimensions are about five by six inches for a 200 gram steak.

No need to juice these up.

Now if you’ve read Don Day in SMA for all the years I’ve been writing the blog, you may remember that whenever I’ve discussed arrachera and falda, I’ve written that you must marinate them and I’ve recommended juices like pineapple and papaya to break up the fibres and tenderize them. Now I’m going to tell you to follow Don Day’s Wife lead and don’t listen to everything I say. Old habits die hard but I’ve kicked the must be marinated one because, late in life, I have discovered the joys of flash cooking.

Flash cooking is not very complicated, you just get the barbecue about as hot as you possibly can and seriously reduce the cooking time. And it also works with a cast iron pan.

So which is best? Arrachera or falda?

This is a tough question. Or perhaps I should say a tender question. Because if you don’t eat both steaks at the same time, how could you really make a true comparison of taste and tenderness.

So I did. Because I’m a food fanatic and I was dying to know, last week, we bought an arrachera and a falda and sampled them side by side.

They both weighed in at around 200 grams and the falda was a bit thicker than the arrachera but not thick enough to need a longer cooking time other than the few seconds it gained from being put on the grill first and taken off last.

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Don Day’s Wife spiced them with coarse sea salt and fresh cracked pepper while I cranked the Coleman up to its hottest level of just under 600 degrees and on they went.

As soon as the steaks were on the grill, I shut the lid. In the old days, this would be when I would go and refill my glass of red. But this is flash cooking and, for some reason grass fed steaks seem to cook quite a bit faster than grain fed. So, a very quick 90 seconds later, I flipped them and banged the lid shut again as quick as I could. Thanks to some nice streaks of fat on the outside, the arrachera had a more caramelized looking sear, but they were pretty close. After another 90 seconds, I turned off the BBQ, opened the lid, put them on the top rack and smeared them with a dollop of unsalted butter. The butter is a trick I learned when researching what the big, upscale steakhouses do. Some chains keep the butter simple. Others add shallots, garlic, parsley, tarragon, even brandy.

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A knife slit inside the falda made me a little worried about it being a little too red but, five minutes later, after the all important rest, when I placed them on a cutting board, they had already turned to a pinkish grey.

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We generally serve both arrachera and falda presliced, particularly when there are guests, because they must be cut across the grain and not everyone knows that. Otherwise, you could experience the sensation that one chef described as “chewing a mouthful of elastic bands”.

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After carving, the steaks were extremely moist with a steady stream of juices running into the cutting board’s gutter. They were ready for plating and for having those juices poured back over the top.

And the winner is…

I placed a slice of falda between my teeth and slowly chewed. After cleansing my palate with some baked potato and chives, I did the same with the arrachera. I then reversed the order of the cuts. And then reversed them again.

“So which is the winner for taste?”, I asked Don Day’s Wife.

“Which one’s your winner?”, she replied.

“I asked first”, I said.

“I don’t have a winner”, she said, “I’m declaring it a dead heat.”

As much as I wanted to crown a champion, I couldn’t choose either. You could have blindfolded me and I wouldn’t have been able to tell them apart.

“OK”, I said, “How about the just as important measurement? How about tenderness?”

“Nicely tender”, Don Day’s Wife replied, “but again I wouldn’t rank one over the other.”

“Ditto”, I replied.

We had agreed that there was no winner. Neither steak was better or even different from the other. But we had proven something else. Our days of almost always choosing grain fed ribeyes were over. Our steak spectrum had dramatically expanded and we were now confident that good steaks were to be had from good, local, San Miguel de Allende butchers.

Karen Hursh Gruber is the Senior Food Editor at Mexconnect. Her cow chart originally appeared in Choice Cut Or Mystery Meat? A Guide To Mexican Butcher Shops which you’ll find here: http://www.mexconnect.com/articles/2398-choice-cut-or-mystery-meat-a-guide-to-mexican-butcher-shops-part-i-beef? You’ll find links to more of her writing at http://www.mexconnect.com/authors/6-karen-hursh-graber. Karen is also the author of the highly-recommended book The Cuisine of Puebla, Cradle of Corn.

You can read Casey Barber’s take on butcher’s cut steaks at http://www.goodfoodstories.com/hanger-skirt-flank-flatiron-steaks/

The San Miguel butchers I frequent the most are La Nueva Aurora at Durazno #24 in Fraccionamiento La Luz as well as La Paloma and La Nueva Blanca on Collegio, across from Plaza Civica and Mercado Ignacio Ramirez, in Centro. Choosing them though is mostly about convenience so I would recommend that you first try to give your business to the closest butcher to your home.

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