We smelled it before we reached it, on a side road near the airport in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. The name, Super Carnes HC de Monterrey, implied butcher shop—but it was one that used the smells of its adjacent restaurant as the best imaginable advertisement for its meat. You ordered lunch directly from the guy flinging pieces of arrachera, skirt steak, onto a charcoal grill as big as a king bed, and a few minutes later you got a juicy, smoky hunk of beef for about $8, which tasted as good as any steak eaten anywhere on earth. Or so it seemed on a hot sunny day in Mexico.
You might think that I could find something about as good in a U.S. city which only has ten million places grilling arrachera for steak tacos. But in a decade of looking, I had only gotten close once... at a mainly chicken place. Nick wrote about it after I tipped him off to it here, but as he noted then, while the chicken (they also grill rabbit) spent enough time on the grill to taste of it, the thin steak really didn't. And anyway, this was steak in a taco, not a big ribbon of skirt for me to devour all by itself. The Holy Arrachera still eluded me.
I actually wasn't thinking about this when I spotted Mezquite Pollo Express on 55th just west of California. I was thinking of another charcoal chicken grill which Titus wrote about here a few months ago, El Pollo Real.
This used almost identical equipment, and I soon realized Titus had tweeted a photo of this couple-of-months-old spot, too, just a few days earlier. That the chicken was grilled over live charcoal was unmistakable—you could smell smoke in the air, and if you waited long enough, sooner or later you'd see the grill man raising the grill and dumping more hot coals in the grill with a shovel.
The chicken was great, smoky and crispy. Among the other tacos, the cochinita pibil was first-rate, too, tender and with a side of pickled onions dotted with bits of habanero pepper in Danger Orange. There were other signs of quality, too—the salsa served at the start with flecks of char from the charred peppers in it, the woman toward the back making handmade tortillas in a press. But I couldn't honestly tell from the steak taco if the meat had also been grilled over charcoal, or not. I looked at the menu for a clue, and found arrachera on the menu, all by itself, ready to answer my question. D'oh!
It took a few weeks but finally I went back and ordered the arrachera. I saw the smaller grill where they cook the steak, but what I couldn't see was what powered it, charcoal or gas. I watched the guy who would make my steak, the one who looks like Miguel Ferrer, whip the guacamole fresh by hand like Bob Morton whipping up a corporate power play against Dick Jones and the ED-209. But the grill's power source remained a mystery.
Then I saw him go over to the cooker used to heat the coals, and take a scoop. He raised the grill where the steaks would cook, and dumped a mound of coals into it. Then he placed a long, thin cut piece of meat across it, and smoke rose from the fire. It was great, and it was mine.