Last year, I came across a 1905 menu from Casa Verdugo, the first upscale Mexican restaurant in the United States. Mostly it listed familiar dishes, but it was very proud of its ensalada con salpicón, which was lettuce and tomato topped with, of course, salpicón.
Salpicón doesn’t show up on menus very often these days, and when it does, it’s seafood dressed with oil and vinegar. But since Casa Verdugo was located in Glendale, Calif., and represented the cuisine of California’s rancho days, I figured maybe its version was made with beef, which had been absurdly cheap back when 80,000 head of cattle wandered the Los Angeles area. They were longhorn cattle, whose meat is proverbially tough, but this method would certainly tame it.
So I made a salpicón from shredded beef (machaca), fried with onions and stewed with a bit of tomato for sweetness and dosed with vinegar and capers. The oil from frying, combined with the vinegar and other flavorings, makes it kind of like a salad dressing, only a salad dressing diluted with beef — or vice versa. My kind of salad dressing, for sure.
In the Days of the Dons, they hadn’t had iceberg lettuce or most of the baby greens we go for today, so this salad would probably have been made with romaine lettuce. That gives us the opportunity to convert it into finger food by using the smaller interior leaves of romaine, which can easily serve as little boats for conveying this beefy “salad dressing” to the mouth.
Ensalada con Salpicón
Serves 2 as salad, 6-8 as appetizer
- Poach the meat in water until quite tender, about 2 hours. (This can be done in about ½ hour in a pressure cooker.)
- Drain the meat and shred by tearing apart with two forks.
- Heat ¼ cup oil in a pan, add the onion, garlic, oregano and shredded meat and fry, stirring often, until the meat is browned and the onion is softened.
- Chop one of the tomatoes and stir it into the meat along with the vinegar. Taste and add salt and pepper as desired. To serve, arrange lettuce leaves on a plate and top with salpicón and the remaining tomatoes.
Charles Perry is a former rock ‘n’ roll journalist turned food historian who worked for the Los Angeles Times award-winning Food section, where he twice was a finalist for the James Beard award.