Imperial Valley College Journalism

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Carne Asada: Mexican Ambrosia in the Imperial Valley


By Josh Schiebelhut

IMPERIAL VALLEY, Calif. – Here on the border, life is different than places farther north. The people drive faster, the weather gets hotter, and the culture is thick enough to cut with a knife. So, it’s not a surprise when people say that the food this far south sometimes takes on a life of its own as well.

Carne asada, prepared with lemon, onion, orange, cilantro, and beer, is a tasty staple of the Imperial Valley.

Carne asada, prepared with lemon, onion, orange, cilantro, and beer, is a tasty staple of the Imperial Valley. --Photo by Josh Schiebelhut

Just north of Baja California, the Imperial Valley is a host to a great number of tasty treats exclusive to the area. Whether it’s carne asada, with its marinaded, divine tastiness, or a special quesadilla, with its interestingly buttered and fried texture, or the crickets and worms, traditionally eaten as a finger food south of the border and sold as a gag gift at the local gas stations, the food sold in this valley doesn’t resemble anything like the food sold further east down the border, and much less like anything eaten further north.

“You can’t find anything like what I like to make,” Francisco Brambilar, 58, said standing behind the counter of Los Compadres, looking down at the last batch of carne asada he made earlier in the day– a tray of thinly sliced beef with lemons, onions, and cilantro scattered about the top.

Francisco Brambilar, 58, stands behind his counter at Los Compadres in El Centro, California.  "If you want the best, you come to Los Compadres. I'll take care of you," Brambilar said as this photo was being taken.  He has been a butcher more than 30 years in the Imperial Valley.  --Photo by Josh Schiebelhut

Francisco Brambilar, 58, stands behind his counter at Los Compadres in El Centro, California. "If you want the best, you come to Los Compadres. I'll take care of you," Brambilar said as this photo was being taken. He has been a butcher more than 30 years in the Imperial Valley. --Photo by Josh Schiebelhut

Brambilar has been a butcher in the Imperial Valley for 35 years, having worked at three of the grocery stores that sell carne asada in the valley. He started at Cook’s market as a butcher’s assistant, then moved on to Kennedy’s, one of the carne asada titans of the valley, and finally settled down five years ago at a quaint supermercado called Los Compadres, located just two blocks from his house on the north side of El Centro. And with that much time comes a deep sense of understanding of the inner workings of marinading skirt steaks. But, when asked if he would share some of his trade secrets, Brambilar replied, “If you want to know my secret recipe, I can lie to you if you want.”

Such is the atmosphere that surrounds the mystery that is the different markets’ makes of meat. Each one has their own distinct flavoring for carne asada, devoid of explanation, and thus, filled by an air of mystery. Kennedy’s boasts a lemony, salty perfection of carne, whereas Brambilar’s carne at Los Compadres keeps the tastes as subtle as they are numerous. And 10 miles north of El Centro, in the town of Brawley, other markets vend their recipes to willing buyers, and one in particular has a faithful following, and an auspicious owner.

Dale Ramey, owner of Ramey's Meats, sits in his office near Brawley, California. "We have a real faithful following here, so all of the other businesses around here don't really bother me," Ramey said.

Dale Ramey, owner of Ramey's Meats, sits in his office near Brawley, California. "We have a real faithful following here, so all of the other businesses around here don't really bother me," Ramey said. --Photo by Josh Schiebelhut

Dale Ramey, of Ramey’s Meats in Brawley, doesn’t just sell normal skirt steaks to his customers, he makes sure he gets 100 percent organic, no-hormone beef to marinade. “It’s what separates us from the rest,” Ramey said, sitting behind his large wooden desk, with awards from various competitions grouped in a spot behind his back wall. “As far as I’m concerned, we don’t have any competition down here, because we’re just on a different level.”

Partway through this story’s interview with Ramey, a woman walked in and asked if her order was ready. A young worker proceeded to the back, and within a minute returned with an empty Bud Light 30-pack box filled with vacuum-sealed carne and pollo asada.

“Thanks Dale,” the woman said, as she left the store.

“That’s Dora,” Ramey said, “She’s a regular here. She ships all that meat up to her son in Colorado. I guess her son just needs to have it, and he can’t find anything like it up there.”

Luis Quintero, 25, a 7-11 clerk in El Centro, California sells edible crickets and worms. "I think people just eat them as a joke," Quintero said.

Luis Quintero, 25, a 7-11 clerk in El Centro, California sells edible crickets and worms. "I think people just eat them as a joke," Quintero said. --Photo by Josh Schiebelhut

What else that may not be found in Colorado is edible bugs, and while maybe there are a couple stores there that sell them as gag gifts, chances are you won’t find them at your local 7-11. For less than $2, you can buy yourself a pack of crickets, or worms, and each comes in different flavors, but the texture is always the same.

“I think people just eat them as a joke, no one sits down and eats them like a bag of Cheetos around here,” said Luis Quintero, 25, a clerk at the Interstate 8 and Imperial 7-11 in El Centro.

Tovin Lapan, a food editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune, had this to say in an email interview about the unique nature of food along the border:

“Carne asada is very popular in the north of Mexico and that tradition carries into the Southwestern United States. What barbeque is to the Kansas City grill master who brags about his homemade sauce and hosts friends in his backyard on football Sundays, carne asada is to Northern Mexicans. Northern Mexico is known for its beef production with more cattle ranching than the rest of the country, which is one likely reason carne asada is a stronger tradition in the border states.”

A special quesadilla, served with lettuce, sour cream, and a tomato, from Mexicali Tacos just off of Interstate 8 on 4th Avenue in El Centro.

A special quesadilla, served with lettuce, sour cream, and a tomato, from Mexicali Tacos just off of Interstate 8 on 4th Avenue in El Centro. --Photo by Josh Schiebelhut

Other than carne asada, which is simply marinaded skirt steaks, there is also pollo asada, which is in essence prepared the same way, only with chicken. On top of that, there aren’t many places up north where you’ll find special quesadillas, which are quesadillas fried in a “special” way to make them puff out like a balloon made of flour and the Monterrey Jack cheese oozes and spills out with every bite.

Despite the secretive nature of the food prepared locally, the recipes developed here have traveled to the other side of the United States. Three brothers, two of whom grew up in Calexico, made a smart decision when they realized that, since the food found here in the Southwest can’t really be found elsewhere, why not take it as far north and east as the Big Apple? The Vendley brothers– Dave, Brian, and Jesse– working on Jesse’s dream of building a restaurant, started out as a modest food cart on the streets of New York City as Calexico. Within three years, they were lauded as “Food Vendors of the Year” by the Vendy Awards, a “sidewalk chefs’” competition in Manhattan. From there, they shot up through the ranks to become a top competitor in the catering market in New York, even becoming so popular as to have appearances on Fox News and The Martha Stewart Show.

“We were very honored to be on TV, it came as kind of a big surprise. In fact, we’re still getting used to it,” Brian Vendley said. Their 15 minutes of fame has not yet gone to their heads. They’re still modest and know where their roots are.

“We try to get out to the valley at least once a year. It’s good to see our relatives and enjoy the peace and quiet, and of course eat some good local carne asada.”

Rife with dust-storms and secret recipes, the Imperial Valley leaves everything up to the imagination. But one thing is for sure, you can’t find food like this anywhere else– well, except for maybe NYC. That is, unless you make it yourself!

4 Replies

  1. I love carne asada :) This was nice to read! Good luck with your new major, Josh!

  2. I can best you on your carne asada marinade and cook, Josh! And Jenna… you’ll like my recipe better!

  3. I grew up in the Imperial Valley, but moved to NY years ago and have been wanting to make some carne asade & special quesadillas ever since. There is nothing like it anywhere, and I am so glad I found this page. I remember going to a couple of those meat markets in my younger days. Brings back memories. I will give your recipe a shot, and I have added your page to my favorites. I plan to check out “Calexico” next time I go to NYC!

  4. Melissa Mar 25th 2011

    Thanks for this. I used to live in San Diego years ago. We used to get the best Carne Asada at a carnicería in Spring Valley that was imported from Imperial Valley. It was the best ever. I wanted to make some carne asada & was looking all over the internet for a recipe for the IV kind. I will be trying this tomorrow :)


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