RecipeBeta: A Gringo’s Take on Beef Lengua Tacos - Something Edible
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RecipeBeta: A Gringo’s Take on Beef Lengua Tacos

RecipeBeta: A Gringo’s Take on Beef Lengua Tacos

Abstract: Beta recipes are my own experiments that I've only tried once. Usually palatable, they often could be better with a little tweaking - So please do, and let me know what works!

When ordering my beef last month, the butcher asked me if I wanted "the other stuff."  "Well, hell yeah!" I replied, as my frugal sensibilities told me to take what I'd paid for anyway.  To my surprise, the person that took the other half of my steer didn't want the tongue (that is unless they're making two-tonged steers now). Having this particular cut of offal in my possession immediately took my mind to tacos; but the problem was, I'd never cooked or even tasted them. The challenge: to fix a good lengua taco without an exemplar.

Purpose: My culinary curiosity runs deep. The first time I ever had beef tongue, I was 5 years old. One of my teachers brought a boiled tongue and a box of saltines to school and proceeded to slice some up for anyone who cared to partake. I still remember trying it and thinking to myself, "Hey, this isn't half-bad; but it could use a little mustard."

Fast-forward thirty years later: I've still got no problem eating offal, but I haven't really had opportunity to eat tongue all that often. This last spring, I had a great tongue and hot pastrami sandwich at Sherman's Deli (another must-stop in Palm Springs), and it got me hankering again for the sumptuousness of the cut and that flavor that is unmistakably beef.  Not all that long ago, we had a [now apparently defunct] taco trailer here in HaysUSA that advertised lengua as one of their meat choices. I almost always go for the carnitas the first time I hit up a new Mexican food joint, and had the trailer hung around long enough for me to make a return visit, the tongue was second on my to-try list, as I had never had tongue done up in a South-of-the-border style. A month or so ago, we received the quarter steer that we'd ordered the month prior. I began to rife thru the offal bag and found the tongue there. Here's the Cliffs Notes version of the thought process that played out in my mind for the next week as I contemplated how I was gonna get from tongue to tacos:

Hmmmm... Still wanna do those lengua tacos. Man I wish that Taqueria Rosales hadn't skipped town, 'cuz I have absolutely no baseline for a proper lengua. Guess I'll do what I always do when I'm exploring new dishes and hit up about 4 or 5 different recipes on the interwebs and take the best from all their subsequent parts.
"Wow. none of these recipes brine their tongue. I know the deli-style tongue is brined for sure. Why don't they brine? Tongue's kinda blah without salt... Wow lookie there- most of the brines are a seven-day affair. What the hell's with that? Gotta be for time's sake so the sodium nitrate can do it's thing to keep the meat pink (like corned beef).
"I think a brine might be appropriate, but I sure as hell don't wanna wait seven or even three days to cook. How about I cook the tongue in the brine? I'll do it up in the slow cooker. Will that brine in the presence of heat cause the tongue to give up too much water and make it tough and/or too salty? I need to do some research."

A quick peruse of my copy of On Food and Cooking while trying to nail down the proper salt concentration for a brine of this nature reminded me of what I'd learned waaay back in my organic chemistry; and that was that the salts in brine should also assist in the denaturing of proteins, thus making the meat all the more tender. This is actually a reaction that can work better in the presence of the proper amount of heat; and since tongue needs the buhjeezus cooked out of it anyway to be palatable, I figured that I could just go right ahead and do my slow cooking in the brine.

Recipe: Jump to the detailed recipe. (or, keep reading for the gist of it) -

The Lengua

  • 2 lbs beef tongue
  • 2 quarts water
  • 1 1/2 Tbsps liquid smoke
  • 1/4 cup Kosher salt
  • 2 Tbsps demerara sugar
  • 2 ancho chiles tops and seeds removed
  • 1 1/2 tsps Mexican oregano
  • 1 tsp coriander seeds
  • 1 tsp black peppercorns
  • 1/2 tsp allspice berries (about a dozen berries)
  • 1 yellow onion medium-sized; quartered
  • 6 cloves garlic smashed
  • 2 tsp vegetable oil (You'll use this to sear the cooked tongue.)
  • AdHoc Salsa Taquera

  • 10 oz Ro-Tel Pick your favorite flavor.
  • 1 Tbsp cider vinegar
  • 1/8 tsp salt (aka 'a pinch')
  • 1/8 tsp liquid smoke (or to taste)
  • To serve

  • onion minced
  • cilantro chopped
  • lime wedged
  • soft corn tortillas Warm 'em up. It usually takes 2 per taco.

  • Into a quart of water, add salt, sugar, ancho chiles, coriander, Mexican oregano, peppercorns, and allspice. Heat to dissolve (about 4-5 minutes in the microwave), and add the brine to a 5.5 qt slow cooker along with the liquid smoke and the last quart of water (tap temperature is fine). Add the onion, garlic cloves, and the tongue. Cover and braise on low for 8-10 hours, until the meat is uber-tender to the point it'd pull easily with a fork. Remove from the hot brine and move to a covered container to refrigerate overnight.

    The next day, peel the skin from the tongue and cut into half-inch slices, and then cut the slices into half-inch strips. Heat a skillet (preferably cast-iron) to medium-high heat with 2 tsp vegetable oil, and sear the strips-o-tongue for 1-2 minutes on two sides until the proper level of gorgeous crust is achieved.

    For the salsa taquera, throw the Ro-Tel, vinegar, salt, and smoke into a blender and liquefy until smooth.

    If you're going for authentic taco truck in the presentation department, serve the tongue on warm corn tortillas, with diced onion, cilantro, a lime wedge and your just-created salsa taquera.


    • First and foremost, I gotta give props to the good folks at Smoky Hill Meat Processing for saving me a shit-ton of trim work. Go take a look at a few of these pictures, and you'll see that a lot of tongue comes with that mess of tissue at the attachment that's not at all desirable from a standpoint of evenness of texture. You've probably heard it before, but it's true: make friends with your butcher.
    •  I did my tongue in the Crock Pot, but this sort of slow cooking could easily be done on the stove top or even in your dutch oven nestled inside your oven proper. It's not even summer in Kansas and the temperatures are already in the 90s, so hell yeah I'm gonna use a slow cooker; and I'm gonna use it outside in a place tucked out of the wind for good measure.
    • When the cooking cycle's done, the meat should be incredibly tender. All the collagen between those muscle fibers has had ample time to denature, hydrate and convert to gelatin, and heat and salt have thoroughly beat up those once tough muscle fibers.  If you wanted to serve immediately,  it'd just be a matter of shredding the meat with a fork as you skin it. That being said, you'd be missing an opportunity for more flavor. An overnight sit covered up in the fridge before skinning will allow you to slice up uniform pieces that can be browned up in a little bit of grease in a medium-hot cast iron skillet. The Maillard (<- dig that crazy 'stache!) from the browning and the umami you get from the fats and gelatins hiding between all those muscle fibers is a flavor force to be reckoned with.
    • If you know that you're gonna have leftovers anyway, I gotta recommend doing the final sear a la minute. The reheated twice-cooked stuff just ain't the same, and can even be a bit dry and gamy.
    • Btw, if you have a proper recipe or even a favorite bottled salsa taquera, don't feel like you gotta go with the bootstrapped rendition provided here. I was using native timber and just happened to get lucky (which begs the question, "If a decent makeshift taco sauce is this easy, of why is this kind of salsa coming out of so many restaurants so mediocre?").

    Results: I was trying to come up with a good way to describe the taste and texture of this dish to a person who's not had lengua before, and as I was writing the phrase, "Perfectly seasoned strips of slow-simmered beef seared tender and juicy" started to sound like someone describing a steak taco at the bell, so I'm going with that. Short story: if you enjoy what they're calling steak at Taco Bell, then you've got no excuse not to upgrade and have you some lengua instead. The beefiness of the lengua is rich; I'd go so far as to call this the double-chocolate cheesecake of taco filling, and if you serve with a suitable side, then two or three will easily get you to satiation.

    I'm not a guy who likes to take chances, and I sure would hate to waste almost two pounds of meat on an educated guess (I also have serious self-esteem issues when it comes to failure). I guess that's why overall I'm really pleased that this lengua turned out as well as it did. And although I still haven't been able to sample the real deal, when I do I'll be all the more intrigued to see how a proper taqueria handles their offal.  Comments from the peanut gallery were rampant while I was preparing my lengua, as even my spendthrift of a significant other couldn't understand why I would want part of the mouth of another critter in my own pie-hole. But, as I got closer to the finished product, even she had to admit that what was once kinda grotesque now looked like something edible (hey, there's a name for a blog in there somewhere!). At any rate, preparing tongue in this manner is a good reminder of how even that oh-so familiar ground beef was once part of a whole beast; and someone did that work for you. It really makes a person appreciate what's involved in meat processing in general, and I truly think if more folks had to process more of what they ate, they'd probably eat a lot less meat, and the meat they ate would taste even better, as the good stuff in life is always better when you gotta earn it.

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