Tacos al Pastor

No matter how familiar you may be with a given city street in Mexico, everything changes at 7:00 o’clock, when the majority of taco vendors open their doors and begin grilling their meats. Unlike their North-of-the-Border cousins in the United States, which are drenched in sour cream, iceberg lettuce, and stringy tendrils of flavorless orange, Jack cheese, tacos in Mexico are a much simpler affair, where each ingredient is allowed to shine. In addition to the large grill tables, sending the smoky smells of arrachera into the streets, most taquerias also offer some version of tacos al pastor, or “Shepard-Style” tacos: thin slices of pork, marinated in achiote and peppers, before being stacked vertically on a spit (called a trompo, or literally, a “spinning top”) and cooked in front of an open wall of flame, rotisserie style.

This method of cooking pork for tacos al pastor was thought to be brought to Mexico by the waves of Lebanese immigrants during the 1960s, who brought their similarly-prepared Shawarma; Mexicans substituted pork for lamb, and fiery peppers for the Arabic spices. An instant classic in Mexican street food was born, and spread throughout all parts of Mexico, even as far South as Yucatan.

In most self-respecting taquerias, the trompo will be topped by an entire pineapple. The pineapple releases its juices into the meat as it cooks, which isn’t just delicious, but the enzyme in the pineapple helps break down and tenderize the meat. A professional taquero will wield a long, sharp knife, spinning the trompo to cook the outer layers of the pork, before deftly slicing thin layers directly into a handheld corn tortilla. With another quick flick of the wrist, the taquero will lop off a thin slice of the pineapple onto the taco, as well, before it is finished simply with chopped white onions and cilantro. A quick squeeze of lime, and a liberal application of habanero-based hot sauce later, and you’ve got some of the best bar-food you’ve ever tasted, and at only around 75 cents apiece. It’s stunningly easy to have polished off five or six, with plenty of crisp Mexican beer, before you even realize what’s happened.

So, how can you create this dish at home, without building your own vertical rotisserie, stacking raw marinated pork into a big pile, or hiring your own swarthy, mustachioed taquero to make your tacos? You can’t. But, you can come awfully close. Here’s how to prepare tacos al pastor at home.

Tacos al Pastor

Ingredients:

  • 2 pound boneless pork loin
  • 2 Guajillo chiles
  • 1 Ancho chile
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon oregano
  • 1 teaspoon crushed whole black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon ground sea salt
  • 2 finely chopped white onions
  • 6 cloves of garlic, crushed
  • 2 teaspoons of achiote paste
  • 1 cup of pineapple juice
  • 1 white onion, diced
  • 1 handful fresh cilantro, chopped
  • Corn tortillas
  • Lime wedges

Method:

Slice pork as thinly as possible, diagonally against the grain, and set aside. Rehydrate dried chilies by covering in hot water. Let soak until soft, drain water, and remove tops, seeds, and membranes from each chili. Combine with cinnamon, oregano, black pepper, sea salt, garlic, achiote paste, and pineapple juice in food processor, and pulse until thoroughly combined. Transfer pork to gallon freezer bag, and pour marinade on top. Mix to make sure all pieces are coated, and marinate, refrigerated, for 24 hours. Preheat oven to 350 degrees, and remove meat from bag. Arrange into “roll” or “loaf” shape on a baking sheet, cover with additional marinade, and cook for about an hour. The pork will still be pink, but don’t worry; finish it until cooked to your liking in a pan on the stovetop. Place a few slices of pork on a corn tortilla, and top with diced onions, cilantro, and a healthy squeeze of lime.

Malcolm Bedell is co-author of the critically acclaimed "Eating in Maine: At Home, On the Town, and On the Road," as well as the junk food blog "Spork & Barrel," and "Brocavore," a blog about food trucks and street food culture. His contributions include Serious Eats, Down East, Eat Rockland, L.A. Weekly, The Guardian, and The Huffington Post and his food truck, "'Wich, Please," was named "Hottest Restaurant in Maine" for 2015 by Eater. Finally, he finds it very silly to be trying to write this in the third person.

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