Top this: Flank steak tacos invite your own mix of fresh, creative toppings

by Terry B on September 9, 2009

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]

For toppings:
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].

Kitchen Notes

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…]
sour cream
chopped onions [white or scallions]
prepared salsa
chopped cilantro
pico de gallo [prepared or homemade]

If you have favorite taco toppings, share them in the comments below.

Other Notes

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.


{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

diva September 9, 2009 at 8:54 am

mmm. lovin the marinade. when it comes to tacos, we hardly ever marinate our meats and just prepare the sauce we usually do and just chuck the meat in to cook. this looks delicious and i’ll give that a try to next time i make tacos! :)

Angie September 9, 2009 at 1:57 pm

I’m biased because I work for Christopher Ranch, a California garlic grower, but I applaud your use of fresh ingredients. Dried powders don’t have nearly the flavor, nor the health of fresh ingredients, at least when it comes to garlic.

Laura September 9, 2009 at 3:11 pm

Oh wonderful! I truly believe that flank steak is one of the great unsung heroes. I grew up eating it (usually just marinated and thrown on the grill) but you’ve taken it to the next level here. And I totally agree with you on tacos…they are one of life’s more perfect foods.

lisa (dandysugar) September 10, 2009 at 1:26 am

The marinade sounds great. I love the use of fresh ingredients here, makes the tacos even more delicious.

dani September 10, 2009 at 1:29 am

You’ve used my favorite taco ingredient – cilantro! Being in Arizona, we take our Mexican food seriously (but hopefully not ourselves.) We can change-up the types of beef/pork/chicken/fish, hot peppers, bell peppers, onions (red, white, sweet or scallions), even what kind of tomato. And there are (gasp!) some who use garlic powder and/or chili powder. But the one ingredient we must have is cilantro. As far as I’m concerned, all Mexican food tastes fresher with cilantro and lime juice. I look forward to trying the flank steak. We usually use a “pot roast” that we slow cook, then shred. And thanks for the tip to use two of the soft flour tortillas. Great idea!

Terry B September 10, 2009 at 2:01 am

Diva—And be sure to save some of the marinade to toss the meat with at the end. It really boosts the flavor.

Hi, Angie! As I said, I’m not sure why, but garlic powder is a deal breaker for me in a recipe, unless I can figure out a way to substitute real garlic. And I hadn’t even thought of the health benefit issue.

Thanks, Laura! Whenever I cook with flank steak, I think I need to find more excuses to do so.

Thanks for stopping by, Lisa (dandysugar)!

Dani—Now after reading your comment, I’m wanting to explore other kinds of tacos. I must admit, I haven’t tried fish tacos yet. I know lots of people love them, but the two just don’t seem to go together in my head.

dani September 10, 2009 at 2:14 am

Hi Terry! I’ve never had the desire to try fish or shrimp tacos either. I do like salsa on grilled fish and chicken, though.

Toni September 10, 2009 at 5:25 am

Never marinated the meat before making the tacos – love the idea! Just bought 8# of Hatch green chili which is pretty hot – must try this out with them.

As for the fish taco thing – it might sound weird, but trust me – it’s terrific. I remember when I was in La Paz in southern baja, I had them off the street – and off the charts good. (For 85 cents, they were divine!)

Alta September 10, 2009 at 12:37 pm

I am a sucker for a good taco. And this, dear friend, looks like a good taco indeed! I’d have to sub the tortillas for corn, but I love flank steak…happen to have some in the house! Maybe this’ll be our dinner Saturday night!

Terry B September 10, 2009 at 4:09 pm

Dani—Yeah, I love fish with salsa. In fact, I make a spicy salmon with a mango salsa that’s quite good, if I say so myself. But the fish/taco combo… well, I was going to say no before seeing Toni’s comment.

Okay, Toni. Think I’m going to have to man up on this one and give fish tacos a try. Just have to find the right place in Chicago to make sure I’m getting good stuff.

Thanks, Alta! You know, most recipes call for corn tortillas. Just make sure you don’t get them too crispy. Maybe brown them lightly ahead of time in a pan or over an open flame and then microwave them just before serving. That might soften them up so they’ll fold nicely.

Paz September 11, 2009 at 1:59 am



Helmut September 12, 2009 at 9:49 am

Yum!!! Now that dish really looks tasty.

altadenahiker September 13, 2009 at 2:02 am

We’ve been living off soft shell tacos for the past two weeks. I knew about the cilantro. I knew about the garlic. I even knew about the cumin. But I didn’t know flank stank could make such a difference.

Terry B September 13, 2009 at 4:14 am

Thanks, Paz!

Hi, Helmut!

altadenahiker—Glad to see that the fires have finally subsided. Hope things are starting to get back to normal. Yeah, where some steaks get points for buttery tenderness, flank steak is the one that brings on big meaty flavor.

Sean September 19, 2009 at 3:03 am

Oh yes. Delicious, simple and honest tacos. I made some using skirt steak earlier this week. As you mentioned in your post, minimal is best when it comes to toppings. I only wish we had taco stands like Mexico so I could go out and get a couple right now. A perfect late-night snack for a hungry student, college kids trying to sober up after too much of a good thing and everything else in between.

Amber Hayes September 26, 2009 at 5:49 am

Yum! This recipe looks and sounds great. The simple toppings really remind me of being in Mexico. I love Chicago by the way. My brother lives there and it is definitely one of my most favorite places to visit. It was fun coming across your blog. I am excited to read more. Thanks!

Terry B September 26, 2009 at 11:05 pm

Sean—You totally need a hot plate in your dorm room. Seriously. And skirt steak is another flavorful cut that sees lots of action in Mexican cuisine.

Thanks, Amber! We were just in Toronto, and it totally impressed us in a lot of ways. But today we were roaming around downtown Chicago and then up along Michigan Avenue and I’m back in love with Chicago again.

Carey September 28, 2009 at 5:55 pm

Ok, I was one who couldn’t quite get my head around fish tacos but the NY Times posted a recipe about 6 months ago that I just had to try.

Oh boy! I substitute shrimp sometimes. I now have to make it 3-4 times a month because it is just so perfect! Also, since I’m coming to visit Chicago this week I would love a suggestion- Best place for tapas?

Terry B September 28, 2009 at 8:03 pm

Carey—That fish taco looks pretty intriguing. I think it’s time to try some! Regarding tapas, I must admit I’m not typically a small plates kind of guy [that said, we had some transcendent tapas in Santa Fe on a visit, and Marion has made a number of small plate dishes that will become part of a post sometime soon]. But I checked with some restaurant-loving colleagues who recommended Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba and Cafe Iberico. You might also check out LTH Forum, a great site for learning about Chicago restaurants in general.

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