Food Fight: Ranchera Preparada
In the barbecue-filled summers of our youth, the masters of the grill were the greatest heroes. They took massive hunks of bright red oozing meat and, through some glorious alchemy, turned it into fragrant brown burgers, tri-tip, carne asada, and ribs. And though some of the mystic awe has faded and the spatula-wielding titans of our childhood have shrunk to a more manageable height (girth, of course, is another story) we are still enraptured by the sizzle of meat on a grill. It is this fascination which is the impetus for this installment of Food Fight. We're in search of the best Ranchera Preparada to throw on the grill, in hopes that we might thereby honor the grillmasters who came before us, cast a respectable shadow for those who will come after, and cook up a good time for ourselves.
For this fight we chose a heavyweight of great renown, the Mexican supermarket chain Vallarta, and pitted their meat against an up-and-comer, the humble but well-regarded Glassell Park bodega La Esquina. Turn the page to see which seasoned beef we liked best.
Outposts of Vallarta dot the city, though the highest concentration of the Mexican specialty supermarkets is in the Valley. Walking through the aisles you might be in any massive grocery store, except the prices are (for the most part) considerably better and the goods include some rarer Mexican ingredients like tamarind, crushed shrimp powder, several different brands of quesillo, a wide range of peppers, and more. There is also a cheap takeout taqueria, but don't let any of it distract you - head straight for the massive meat counter.
There you will find a veritable menagerie of meats in all sorts of cuts and varying states of preparation, from sliced and marinated steaks to sundry species of decapitated fish (heads sold separately). Because we are not butchers ourselves, and because we don't possess the dark magic clearly required to imitate their marinade, we opted for the ranchera preparada, thinly sliced pieces of flank steak sitting and soaking up flavor in a large tub in the refrigerated case. You order it by pointing to the case and suggesting an amount (by the pound), and what you receive is a black plastic bag, inside of which is another bag, inside of which is your precious paper-wrapped package. We recommend purchasing your beef a day or so in advance of your cookout to maximize its marinating time, but in last-minute meat emergencies we are willing to bet a same-day purchase would be totally fine as well.
When the meat finally makes it to the grill, the process is almost too easy. Because the slices are so thin, they cook ridiculously quickly. The pieces are pretty long, so wrangling the beef into one flat strip is sometimes a challenge, but on the whole changing your raw meat into a meal takes very little effort and even less time. Normally convenience and quality share an inverse relationship (anyone had Easy Mac lately?), but this beef bucks that trend. As it cooks the meat perfumes the air with a blend of scents unlike any we've inhaled elsewhere, some distinct citrus notes (rumor has it the marinade calls for large quantities of Sunny D) along with chile, garlic, onion, and other undetectable awesomeness. The taste, as you might expect, follows this stellar nose exactly. The beautifully mixed spices come together perfectly, and they make any extra flavor you were thinking of adding (salsa, guacamole, lime, and the like) largely superfluous. This meat also serves to elevate anything constructed with it (tacos, tortas, or otherwise) right up into the 'best ever' discussion. Yes, it's one hell of a marinade.
If there is one complaint to be made about Vallarta's ranchera preparada, though, it is how totally the seasoning overwhelms the meatiness of the dish. And this is where our underdog, La Esquina, comes in. It is a small market on the corner of an otherwise completely residential intersection, in most regards nondescript. If you go during the day there will be a handful of people enjoying antojitos from the small taqueria that is attached to the market, and inside there will also be a handful of people checking out the meat counter, which, once again, is exactly where you should be. Their ranchera preparada looks similar to Vallarta's and runs about 50 cents more per pound, but we never mind paying an extra buck or two to support a neighborhood spot. It is similarly weighed and wrapped, and the fragrance is actually close to Vallarta's when you unwrap it at home and prep it for the grill.
The similarities continue as you cook it, all the way down to the overlong but still very thin pieces which inevitably get tangled as you lay them across the grill. In tasting La Esquina's meat, though, it is clear that things are not exactly as they appear. Though the flavor of the seasoning is fairly similar to Vallarta's, it's not nearly as strong. Which is to say, you can actually taste the beef underneath all of those spices. The value of this distinguishing factor is really an issue of personal taste. It may not be Wagyu beef, but there is always something to be said for actually tasting the substance of what you're eating, particularly if it is fresh off of the grill. And yet, the seasoning is so good it's hard to call anything that puts it in the secondary position a superior option.
In this instance, we fall on the latter side of the debate. When it came down to it, we found that we preferred the Vallarta version, almost literally popping with flavors too bright to be accurately described, to the more restrained beefiness of La Esquina. However, if you find yourself on the opposite side of the fence we won't hold it against you.
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