for marinade:
juice of two orangescarne asada
juice of one lime
juice of one lemon
1/2 cup soy sauce
1-2 tbsp. cumin
1 tbsp. ground coriander
2 tbsp. chili powder
2 tbsp. dried Mexican oregano
one bunch fresh cilantro
one chopped yellow onion
1/2 cup honey
2 tbsp. tomato paste

2 lbs. flap steak

Let steak marinade overnight, rotate the meat within the marinade a few times to make sure flavor gets integrated. Grill about five minutes per side.


carne asada, cooked and kept warm, sliced into strips

fried potatoes, either from scratch, or a good quality frozen brand, cooked according to package instructions

1 cup shredded cheddar cheese

1 cup shredded Monterey Jack cheese

fresh salsa (recipe follows)

fresh chopped cilantro

sour cream


Lay fries on a platter. Top with carne asada. Add cheeses (at this point, you may want to zap in microwave to get the cheese melting), then the sour cream, salsa, guacamole, and cilantro. Serve.


4 tomatoes, diced fine

1/2 white onion, diced fine

tomato paste (little bit)

garlic puree (you can find this in the produce section, or puree a few peeled cloves in a mini-chop processor)
lime juice

serrano pepper, diced fine (remove seeds – handle and discard carefully)

jalapeno pepper, diced fine (remove seeds – handle and discard carefully)

white pepper

coarse grain salt

chopped fresh cilantro

I haven’t listed many measurements here because salsa is so subjective. Start out with small amounts of ingredients (except for those indicated with a specific amount), and add the other ingredients from there to your liking. For example, if the lime is particularly juicy, you needn’t squeeze it dry. If the lime is small, squeeze until the last drop is released from the fruit, and add the zest, if you like. Trust yourself. Act like you’ve been making this all your life. Sometimes mojo begins with an illusion.

I begin with half of a serrano and half of a jalapeno. I then set aside some of the salsa and add the additional jalapeno and serrano, making a “spicy” bowl for my husband and son. I like mine mild, with extra cilantro.

If you just don’t like how it looks, maybe the veggies are not diced fine enough, or whatever, puree the salsa in a blender. The chips don’t know the difference!

Make sure you clean that blender well before getting started on the margaritas. When you get into college and beyond, you need more than a Coke to wash this food down.

“When we travel to California, we make sure we go to Roberto’s,” out-of -towners confess to me. Roberto’s, Royberto’s Aliberto’s, and Mariscos are all euphemisms for the prototypical western United States taco shop where Mexican fast food reigns among other fast food.

Since I was high school – we had off campus lunches – the taco shop to me has been a sure thing, a routine destination, and an icon of youth and southwestern culture. My college campus had taco shops, because trips and purchases there cured pre-exam jitters, post-exam hunger, hangovers and deliciously filled the need of between class re-fueling.

In the days before children, when I worked (I should say, got paid to work) and had strict one hour lunch breaks, the taco shop read my urgency and hunger, and complied every time. When I began this mommy thing, and my first child had to be driven around at night to get to sleep, the taco shop once again became a destination, as many taco shops are open 24/7. A new Mommy with a good memory, I would sit in my Jetta, baby in the back, watching singles leaving the bars or parties to reunite at the taco shop in the wee hours. It was cute. Or it wasn’t pretty. But it has never changed.

Taco shop food comes wrapped in a waxy yellow paper or styrofoam boxes. The goodies found within are representative of the many levels of our lives, now that I think and write about it. Tortillas filled with cheesy, gooey, meaty, sour cream and salsa, or the enticing crunch from a rolled taco chronologically take me from ravished teenager eating while driving to 20-something, image conscious-female trying to limit carbs and up the protein.
I’ll never stop eating this food.

These days, I haul taco shop food to play dates, the park, soccer and baseball tournaments.

Or shamelessly polish off the leftovers while everyone sleeps. (“Mom, what happened to my burrito?”)

The taco shop aroma, it’s just the familiar scent of home – grilled, spiced meat intermingling with salty sea air, smoke from a brush fire, or eucalyptus trees. It makes even the worst day better.

Every city in the United States has a McDonald’s, but taco shops in the southwest, I think, must be like delis in New York or Cracker Barrels in the Midwest. Rustic regional food – it’s just comforting to know there’s culinary salvation on almost every corner.

When they closed down the last Bob’s Big Boy in San Diego, the first taco shop I ever saw went up in its place, the smoke emanating from the roof somewhere. Plastic tables sat out front, nailed to the ground. It was a newly built establishment, this eatery that uprooted Bob (another column), but the new taco shop looked antiquated, faded red and white vertical stripes giving it a street food cart meets beach cabana look. It seemed like that taco shop had been there for years. No matter what time of day, people gathered there.

So I gave it a shot. One taste, and I traded burgers for burritos.

The taco shop era of my life began. From junior high on, I fell in love with cilantro, easily afforded quesadillas, and only recently, discovered carne asada fries. Carne asada fries – strips of lean meat marinated in spices (these vary), placed atop French fries. That alone make this meat-and-potato girl curl my toes in anticipation, but the toppings make this dish; first, you’ve got the fries, then the grilled and chopped meat, then shredded cheddar and Monterey Jack cheese, sour cream, guacamole, cilantro, and salsa fresca. Potato nachos if you will, a meal that all three of my kids agree on. For pure indulgence, I get the California burrito – carne asada fries wrapped inside a tortilla with pico de gallo.

Many taco shops have up to 20 combination plates; enchiladas, tamales, rolled tacos, open tacos, with rice and beans. I usually get stuck deciding between rolled tacos – tortillas wrapped around shredded beef or chicken then fried – or chicken enchiladas. When I can’t decide on that, I’ll move over to the burrito menu and vacillate between machaca, chorizo, pollo asada, or fajita. My husband never deters from his standard carne asada burrito. Everyone has a favorite.

In my experience in the food industry, I have met some masterful Mexican chefs who immigrated from south of the border. The best taco shops are backed by guys like them.

And I believe good food should be accessible to everyone, not just through a drive-up window in southern California.

“Macario, I need to know how to make the white sauce for fish tacos!”

“Does the chef share his ceviche recipe?”

“How did your abuela make it?”

“You’re family is from Mazatlan? No kidding? Tell me about the beans!”

“Auntie, let’s talk menudo while the kids are swimming.”

When it’s a recipe I want, I know how to talk to people. With some luck and their spirit of generosity, I now treasure my archives of fifty plus original Mexican recipes from artistic, ritualistic, innovative chefs with roots in Mexico who displayed – in the kitchens where I worked – instinct, good ingredient choices, and common sense: the food must taste good. Period.

I see these philosophies demonstrated every time I drive by a taco shop, the drive-thru packed, the service lines deep. Sometimes, I just don’t want to wait in one of those lines. Sometimes – Quetzalcoatl forbid – traditional recipes are tinkered with and flavors thrown off.

So I made up my own. Chef Macario, retired chef Mr. Gutierrez, and my Aunt Rose Marie would be proud of me.

Here is my recipe for carne asada. I am reluctant to tell you that I used soy sauce which is probably not an original ingredient. However, I ran this by a friend of mine whose family routinely makes carne asada and she didn’t hit me when I told her I used it.

I grilled carne asada last night before we went to Alex’s ball game, and when we got home, I served salsa, guacamole, sour cream and corn tortillas with it. There was none left.

The meat is lean, the flavor is taco shop worthy, it’s the perfect cure for Mexican food jonesing, little bodies enduring growth spurts, and family re-grouping after each one of us goes in a different direction during the day.

Smantha Gianulis

Samantha recently released my her family food memoir, Little Grapes on the Vine…Mommy's Musings on Food & Family .

Samantha is a self-taught chef. She worked in the Catering and Special Events industry for seven years before becoming a stay at home, now a work at home, Mom.
She appeared on NBC's ivillage Live.

Smantha Gianulis

Latest posts by Smantha Gianulis (see all) GianulisApron Strings Cooking ColumnHome CookingCooking and RecipesCARNE ASADAfor marinade:juice of two orangesjuice of one limejuice of one lemon1/2 cup soy sauce1-2 tbsp. cumin1 tbsp. ground coriander2 tbsp. chili powder2 tbsp. dried Mexican oreganoone bunch fresh cilantroone chopped yellow onion1/2 cup honey2 tbsp. tomato paste2 lbs. flap steakLet steak marinade overnight, rotate the meat within the...Parenting Advice| Family Fun Activities for Kids