Tacos made with flavorful marinated flank steak—and topped here with fresh lettuce and tomato, pickled jalapeño peppers and lime juice—can be customized to everyone’s taste with a wide array of toppings. Recipe and suggestions below.
This is now the second meal here that started with a bike ride. Marion mentioned our ride along the lakefront last weekend—and “tramping around Lincoln Park”—in unseasonably cool weather that inspired her delicious Potato, Parsnip and Carrot Soup. Much of that tramping around took place in the Lincoln Park Zoo. And having already done half of our riding for the day, much of our zoo time consisted of acquiring and eating lunch.
I was prepared to settle for standard issue zoo fare, most likely an uninspired boiled hot dog. And that could be had there. But the Lincoln Park Zoo has a few culinary tricks up its sleeve. This spring they opened Café at Wild Things, serving fresh, made-to-order dishes from “foods provided by local farmers using organic, sustainable methods.” And even at their Park Place Café, a place they humbly call a year-round food court, the emphasis is on fresh, well-prepared foods.
It was there, after being enticed by pastas, paninis, burgers and more, that we chose tacos. Specifically, steak tacos in soft flour tortillas and topped with a handful of fresh toppings. They were excellent. So good that we went back and complimented the person who had prepared them for us. So good that I decided I needed to make some of my own.
What struck us most about the tacos at the zoo—and what I hoped to achieve with my own—was their freshness. Now, I’m the first to admit that I’m generally a fan of tacos, no matter their provenance. But these were tacos elevated. Tender, well-seasoned meat, crisp lettuce, sweet/tart chopped tomatoes, the spicy bite of pickled jalapeños… all wrapped in pairs of small flour tortillas heated on the griddle. It was a multi-napkin lunch, with juices dripping from the doubled tortillas, and you could taste each individual ingredient as well as how they all played together.
Inspired by the fresh flavors, I went searching for recipes. I immediately rejected recipes calling for garlic powder or onion powder [not sure why I'm so turned off by these ingredients adored by many cooks and virtually every Cajun cookbook, but I am] and focused on those using primarily fresh ingredients. For marinating and cooking the steak, I adapted a recipe from Cooks Illustrated.
Flank Steak Tacos
Serves 4 [two tacos per serving]
For the marinade:
generous 1/2 cup of cilantro leaves, packed, roughly chopped
3 scallions, white and green parts, roughly chopped
3 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1 Serrano pepper, chopped [or jalapeño pepper—see Kitchen Notes]
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon lime juice
1 pound flank steak [see Kitchen Notes]
salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons canola oil
16 small tortillas [I used flour, but you can also use corn]
I used used the following. See Kitchen Notes for other suggestions.
fresh chopped tomato
chopped Romaine lettuce [or similarly crunchy lettuce]
pickled jalapeño pepper slices
lime wedges for squeezing over tacos
Make the marinade. Place cilantro, scallions, garlic and Serrano pepper in bowl of food processor. Pulse 10 to 15 times to finely chop and combine, scraping down the sides of the bowl with a spatula as needed. Add cumin and olive oil and process mixture to a pesto consistency. Mix 2 tablespoons of marinade with the lime juice a small bowl and set aside.
Prepare the steak. Trim off any excess fat and pierce steak 10 to 12 times on both sides with a fork. Slice the steak with the grain [in the direction of the meat fibers] into 4 equal strips. Salt on both sides, place in a glass baking dish and coat with the marinade [not the 2 tablespoons you mixed with the lime juice—leave that alone for now]. Cover baking dish with plastic wrap, refrigerate and let steak marinate for about an hour, turning once or twice.
Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium high flame. Scrape marinade from steak pieces and season with ground pepper. Add canola oil to skillet and cook steak about 3 minutes per side. It should be nicely seared, but pinkish inside. Transfer to a cutting board, tent with foil and let it rest for 5 minutes, to allow juices to redistribute within the meat. Then using a very sharp knife [which you get by sharpening it every time you use it, remember?], slice steak pieces as thin as possible across the grain. The recipe said 1/8-inch; I managed between that and 1/4-inch. Place sliced steak in serving bowl and toss with the reserved marinade/lime juice mixture.
While steak is resting, heat the tortillas. There are various ways to do this. the most authentic way is to lay them on an open burner on your stovetop until they begin to color, 10 or so seconds per side. You can also heat them in the microwave—this will leave them nice and pliable, but won’t give you any color. I heated them for about 20 or 30 seconds per side in a dry skillet.
Assemble the tacos. Here’s where you let your guests have some fun and build their own. You might want to distribute the steak, though, so no one builds steak-only tacos and turns others into unwilling vegetarians. Lay out two tortillas per taco—this gives them a better chance to stand up to juicy contents and manhandling—and arrange some steak along the center of each. Then let guests dress them as they choose. Refried beans make for a nice side, as does guacamole [or avocado halves seasoned with salt and maybe some lime juice, if you're lazy like me].
Serrano? Jalapeño? The original marinade recipe called for a jalapeño pepper. I had already experimented with the marinade on pan roasted pork chops and found it flavorful but with no peppery heat, even though I’d included all the seeds and ribs that give peppers their fire. So for the tacos, I switched to a Serrano pepper. It heated things up a bit, but was by no means fiery. You know your own tolerance level for heat. Choose accordingly.
Care and handling of flank steak. Flank steak is a wonderfully flavorful cut, but it can also turn tough on you. Slicing it thinly across the grain as I described above can help prevent that. So can proper cooking, and medium rare to medium is best. Rare can be chewy, and well done will definitely deliver tough, chewy meat. For another way to use this delicious cut of beef, try my grilled Spice-rubbed Flank Steak.
So many toppings, so little time. I listed my minimalist toppings above. We also spooned chunks of avocado into the tacos as we ate them. Here are some other ideas you might consider:
cheese [jack, cheddar, queso fresco…]
chopped onions [white or scallions]
pico de gallo [prepared or homemade]
If you have favorite taco toppings, share them in the comments below.
And finally, a word about Chicago’s lakefront path. This really is one of the amazing things about this city. About 18 miles of paths for running, biking, rollerblading or plain old walking hug Lake Michigan, stretching from the South Shore below Hyde Park up to Hollywood Avenue in the city’s Edgewater neighborhood. Beaches, harbors, parks and spectacular views line the entire route. It’s no wonder Project for Public Spaces lists it as one of its Great Public Spaces.