A make-at-home rendition of the famed Tacos El Yaqui of Rosarito, Mexico

March 29, 2022
A colorful plate of tacos.
A make-at-home rendition of the famed Tacos El Yaqui. Photo: Bill St. John, for UCHealth.

A subgenre of online food writing is a large trove of what’s come to be called “copycat recipes.” There, you can dig up a formula to replicate, say, Panda Express’s Orange Chicken, or Outback Steakhouse’s Bloomin’ Onion. An entire site for such is the simply-worded copykat.com.

When I lived in Chicago from 2002-2016, and contributed to the Chicago Tribune’s food section pages, one of the most-read Tribune stories ever was by another reporter who had been made privy to a family album of Harland David Sanders (Colonel Sanders), the gentleman who founded Kentucky Fried Chicken. The reporter, Jay Jones, was shown a handwritten list at the back of the album for “11 Spices—Mix With 2 Cups White Fl.”

Had Jones uncovered one of the food industry’s most closely guarded secrets? Back at the Tribune’s test kitchens, the recipe sure was “finger-lickin’ good.”

For my turn, I haven’t delved into many of these online copycat recipes, figuring I don’t much fancy the originals, so why bother?

But I was asked by a friend if, by some hook or crook, I might recreate one of his favorite tacos, from a small but famed taco stand in Rosarito, Mexico, a town on the coast of Baja California south of Tijuana. The place is El Yaqui, named after the indigenous people of what is now called the state of Sonora, Mexico, across the Gulf of California from Baja.

Sonora is well-known for cooking and eating beef. Folk from far and wide come for the stand’s tacos “El Yaqui,” pieces of marinated and grilled beef flank steak set into thick flour tortillas, adorned with piquant red sauce, cheese, pinto beans, and other garnishes.

But there’s no recipe, online or otherwise. Wisely (or as a matter of course, simply because El Yaqui does not fancy itself a foodie mecca), El Yaqui doesn’t divulge “how it’s done.”

But youtube.com does. And so do tripadvisor.com comments, and the hundreds of pictures downloaded onto pinterest.com and any number of other image-grabbing sites.

So, I got to work putting together a recipe for El Yaqui’s tacos, using what’s now etched in time for us online in the way paper and ink recipes used to do the same.

I could listen to El Yaqui’s founder Don Felipe Nuñez describe his method and his (no longer) secret formulae, begun in 1984, and watch visuals of what for all intents and purposes was the recipe (… “handmade flour tortilla with cheese … meat, beans, onions, cilantro …”) scroll across the bottom of the screen in closed-captions.

A plate of Tacos El Yaqui
Tacos El Yaqui can be made at home. Photo: Bill St. John, for UCHealth.

Watching other vids, reading many visitor comments and picking up tricks from the likes of chef Rick Bayless (a frequent customer of El Yaqui), I assembled a recipe for the tacos.

Two things are especially important if you wish to duplicate the recipe in every way: the first is to use only what is called by the Sonorans “arrachera” meat, the cut of beef we name skirt or flank (or sometimes “flap”) meat; and grilling over wood, not charcoal, flame.

The first is easy to accomplish; the second, easier in summertime and outdoors than at other times of the year. Indoors, I use a very hot cast iron-flat skillet or an iron grill pan with raised ridges that char long grill marks onto anything cooked in it.

I believe I made a good copycat recipe. But the best acknowledgment was to hear from my friend that I had. He’s been to El Yaqui many times, while I never have.

Although, in a fashion, I suppose that you could say that, now, any of us can go there.

Tacos El Yaqui (Carne Asada Open-faced Tacos)

The garnish of grilled or roasted jalapeño is crucial; at El Yaqui, they are nicknamed “Mexican candy.” Makes enough for 6 medium-sized tacos, or 2-3 servings.

Ingredients

3/4 pound skirt or flank beef steak

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons any red adobo or spice or steak rub or “taco seasoning”

Juice of 1 orange

Juice of 1 lime

2 cloves garlic, minced or thinly sliced

6 8-inch flour tortillas, warmed or pan-heated

6 thin slices asadero or Monterey Jack or fontina cheese

1/2 cup salsa roja (see recipe below)

Garnishes of cooked pinto beans, chopped white onion, guacamole, and chopped cilantro leaves

Grilled or roasted jalapeño peppers

Directions

Make a marinade of the olive oil, the seasoning powder, citrus juices, and garlic, and marinate the meat for 1-3 hours (no longer or the citrus acidity will make the meat mushy). On an outdoor grill, with wood coals (preferred) or other high heat, or inside on a very hot cast-iron skillet or grill pan, grill the meat for 3-4 minutes on each side, letting it rest for 5 minutes before cutting it against the grain into thin “fingers”, and then into 1/2-inch cubed pieces.

To serve: Place 1 slice of cheese into the fold of each tortilla, then a serving of meat (6-8 pieces), then a spooned strip of salsa roja, and then the remaining garnishes, as they are listed in turn, finishing with the cilantro leaves. Serve 2-3 tacos for each eater with the jalapeño peppers as a side.

To make salsa roja: For 20 minutes, boil in water to cover 5 plum or Roma tomatoes, quartered; 1 medium white onion, peeled and quartered; 2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped; 2 each serrano and jalapeño peppers, stemmed and chopped; and 1 teaspoon salt. With care, blend or process in 2 batches adding 12 whole stalks of cilantro with leaves. To a saucepan add 2 tablespoons neutral oil and, over medium heat and with care when adding, cook the blended sauce, stirring occasionally, for 20 minutes at a simmer. Stores well in the refrigerator.

Reach Bill St. John at billstjohn@gmail.com

About the author

For more than 40 years, Bill St. John’s specialties have been as varied as they are cultured. He writes and teaches about restaurants, wine, food & wine, the history of the cuisines of several countries (France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, and the USA), about religion and its nexus with food, culture, history, or philosophy, and on books, travel, food writing, op-ed, and language.

Bill has lent (and lends) his subject matter expertise to such outlets as The Rocky Mountain News, The Denver Post, The Chicago Tribune, 5280 Magazine, and for various entities such as food markets, wine shops, schools & hospitals, and, for its brief life, Microsoft’s sidewalk.com. In 2001 he was nominated for a James Beard Award in Journalism for his 12 years of writing for Wine & Spirits Magazine.

Bill's experience also includes teaching at Regis University and the University of Chicago and in classrooms of his own devising; working as on-air talent with Denver's KCNC-TV, where he scripted and presented a travel & lifestyle program called "Wine at 45"; a one-week stint as a Trappist monk; and offering his shoulder as a headrest for Julia Child for 20 minutes.

Bill has also visited 54 countries, 42 of the United States, and all 10 Canadian provinces.

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