Get with the Reconquista, people: This is carne asada country, so stop trying to slow-roast 'cue in some overpriced contraption, only to get results not worthy of a Memphis trash heap. It has been since the Californios ruled cattle empires, since the Americans who overtook the state would pretend to be Mexicans by cooking beef all day next to the beach. As with the breakfast burrito and bacon-wrapped hot dog, the meat is now so ubiquitous that Southern Californians with not a drop of mestizo blood line up at supermarkets all summer long to buy carne asada for the grill.
You can try to marinate carne asada on your own, but why not just let a Mexican do the job, just as you do with everything else? Living in Aztlán gives us the benefit of many markets that sell carne asada preparada—pre-marinated so any silly gabacho can just throw it on the grill and char it to chewy, tender, succulent success. In fact, so many markets now dot OC that I can split them up into three categories:
The past decade has seen an explosion of Mexican supermarket chains overtake Orange County, from the Carlos Slim-owned El Super to the Korean-owned Superior to even outposts of the San Fernando Valley-based Vallarta chain. But as someone who has lived in Orange County his entire life and grew up in Anaheim, it has been amazing to see the growth of Northgate González Supermarket from a singular dive off Anaheim Boulevard to a 37-store behemoth that spans Southern California—and I don't say this just because my pops is a truck driver for the company. What's coolest about Northgate is that despite the massive expansion over the past three decades, its quality has never dropped. The carne asada, in particular, is still great, adding profound doses of onion and chiles that make placing it on the grill a fragrant, sonorous triumph. And lest folks think I'm playing favorites here, a plug for the loyal opposition: Local labor is planning a campaign to unionize Northgate's workers, with a protest already having happened May Day in San Diego and more to come soon in la naranja. Should be fun! Find your nearest Northgate at northgatemarkets.com.
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Despite the rise of Mexican supermarkets, a chingo of mom-and-pops still rule the OC carne asada scene. Go beyond the ones gabachos have long lionized—El Campeón in San Juan Capistrano, Lake Forest's El Toro Gourmet Meats, the El Metate mini-chain, all good—and try other spots. Marina Ranch Market (34146 Pacific Coast Hwy., Dana Point, 949-496-4669) impresses with carne asada heavy on the chile; La Bodega (259 S. Tustin St., Orange, 714-633-7978) marinates and slices its asada so it nearly looks like sashimi, so translucent and beautiful it is. Roland Rubalcava over at Rubalcava's (506 W. Chapman Ave., Placentia, 714-524-0117) is the nephew of the Rubalcavas who run the excellent La Reina Markets in Orange and Anaheim (which also sell great carne asada), but the cabrón adds his own twist by never freezing the meat and marinating it adobo style, so it turns into smoky, spicy bliss upon hitting the grill. And while a lot of people swear by El Toro Meat Market in SanTana, the owners aren't fans of this paper, so fuck 'em.
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But I cannot lie: When I grill, I drive all the way to La Venadita (22035 S. Main St., Carson, 310-830-7099). What I wrote about them a decade ago in this infernal rag still stands: “Sí, this carnicería isn't located in OC. But I'd drive to the black center of [former racist Newport Beach council member] Dick Nichols' soul if La Venadita relocated there. La Venadita's carne asada is peppery, laced with jalapeño seeds, and so tender even after cooking it should be illegal.” I don't know what I was trying to do with that last slice of the sentence, but my recommendation remains. Sorry, OC: LA beats us this time. Now, drive out to Carson already!