Finding the Soul of Sonora in Carne Asada

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Many suggest salting only one side of the meat, as Jose Luis Lambarri, a food entrepreneur does. Mr. Lambarri brought me to my first carne asada and also took me to see the wheat fields with his business partner, Carlos Preciado.

“Add a generous amount of salt over the top of the meat right before you throw it on the grill; no timer needed,” said Mr. Lambarri, who is considered an especially good parrillero by his friends and neighbors. “Once it begins to sweat and its juices rise and bubble, that is when you flip it, only once.” The salt flavors the meat from the top down, while the bottom gets a clean char.

As traditional as a carne asada may be, change is beginning to creep in, thanks to social media. Costillitas, or short plate ribs, are now thrown on the grill to nibble as a starter. With its complex taste and playful bite, arrachera, or skirt steak, is catching the interest of some wanting to offer higher-quality cuts to their guests. So is the tablilla, a boneless short rib with a robust, luscious bite.

Sharing the spotlight with the meat is the parrillero. Traditionally a man, there’s one in every family and friend group. Not only does the parrillero work the grill, he also buys the ingredients, invites guests and entertains. A good parrillero doesn’t need to be a skilled professional; he needs only to never mess up the meat, to get it out fast and diced to keep up with demand, and to make sure warm tortillas, salsa, refried beans and guacamole are at the ready. While the parrillero helms the grill, the women in the family are usually in charge of preparing the other dishes.

He must also save the receipts, so everyone can pitch in. As a guest, the only food or drink you are allowed to bring is cold beer or dessert.

And that’s what I found most moving about carne asadas: their sense of community. A carne asada is never meant for one. It’s a celebration of simply coming together with a close group of loved ones, which feels especially poignant right now.

From week to week, in normal times, you might catch a priest coming over for a baptism, a piñata being broken for a birthday, or a family mourning after a funeral: “Desde la bienvenida hasta la despedida,” as Sonorans say, from the first arrival, to the last goodbye.

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