When we met Austin’s ‘taco mafia’ for lunch and tried the excellent tacos al pastor straight from the spit at the humble Rosita’s Al Pastor, I knew this was a dish worthy of further exploration. And that I had to develop my own tacos al pastor recipe.
The simplicity of corn tortillas topped with pork, marinated with pineapple, spices and chilis, grilled on a vertical spit, and sprinkled with cilantro (coriander), and those beautiful Mexican white onions, reminded me of the Middle East’s wonderful snack food, the shawarma – well, apart from the use of pork!
After eating tacos al pastor in their birthplace, Mexico City, way back on our first trip there in the early 1990s, and trying them again for the first time in years on our recent street food tour with Lesley Tellez of Eat Mexico, I knew I had to test out whether you could make them at home and give them the same flavour, if not repeating the singular experience of eating good tacos on the streets of Mexico City.
Our favourite taco place, Salón Corona, a couple of blocks from our holiday rental apartment in Mexico City, drove me to the point of obsession.
There are (perhaps surprisingly to those who don’t know much about Arab immigration history) over a million Arabs living in Mexico. It was Syrian and Lebanese families who brought the vertical spit to Mexico, which they used to make shawarma in Mexico in the 1920s and the rest is history.
I’m not sure how or why we didn’t notice the shawarma-style spits serving up tacos al pastor when we were in Mexico for the first time 17 years ago. We certainly knew and had eaten shawarma a lot in Sydney, where one of our friends owned a Lebanese restaurant. We certainly noticed it this time and made a point of trying tacos al pastor at every opportunity. And we enjoyed every mouthful of every one we ate.
But is it possible to make a version at home in other parts of the world where Mexican food generally equates to a ghastly chain restaurant that serves Tex-Mex burritos and indescribable enchiladas with lashings of horrid, bright orange cheese? I have to admit it would be difficult. One of the keys to making this sublime snack is the chilis. You don’t want them, you need them.
Given that this is a dish I was now determined to make, I set about doing lots of eating research, I studied recipes, and I asked around. Everyone agrees that the meat needs to be grilled on a vertical spit with the pineapple skewered on top so the juice drips through the meat. But I wasn’t deterred!
I tried a pre-prepared al pastor mix. I tried marinating a pork loin and other cuts for 48hrs. I sliced the pork thinly as if it was going on a vertical spit. I grilled it. I roasted it. I also cooked it in a crock pot on the stove.
With Lara — who had become just as obsessed with eating it as I had making it — also taste testing, our verdict for a tacos al pastor recipe that doesn’t require a vertical spit is now in.
Our Tacos al Pastor Recipe
The recipe below gave us the most authentic-tasting tacos al pastor I could come up with. Was it as good as some of the fantastic ones we tried? It was very close.
Is there any way you can substitute flour tortillas for corn? Absolutely not.
Is there anything as good as having some after a few drinks in Mexico City? Not a chance! But still, here it is.
One final note: some recipes use vinegar. We don’t need no stinking vinegar. There is enough acid from the pineapple, thanks.
- 1 kilo of pork loin
- 2 Guajillo chiles
- 1 Ancho chile
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon (dry, pan-roasted)
- 1 teaspoon oregano (prefer ‘branches’ of oregano – preferably Mexican oregano)
- 1 teaspoon crushed whole black pepper
- 1 teaspoon ground sea salt
- 2 finely chopped white onions
- 4 cloves of garlic, crushed
- 1 teaspoon of achiote paste (as well as giving the meat that dark red colour, it adds a lovely flavour)
- 1 cup of pineapple juice
- To Serve:
- Cilantro (coriander) sprigs
- Finely diced white onion
- Some salsa – red or green, it’s all good
- Some tiny pineapple chunks (we’ve had some with, some without – personal choice)
- Slice the pork loin thinly, diagonally across the loin. We’re talking 3–5mm slices.
- The dried chilis need to be rehydrated in water: pour hot water over the chilis, but take them off the heat immediately. Snip the chilis with a pair of scissors to allow water into the chili and to allow the whole chilis to be covered in water.
- Remove the membranes and seeds from the chilis and slice the chilis.
- After step 3, gentlemen in particular, wash your hands thoroughly. Don’t make me explain.
- Throw all the ingredients into a blender, but not the pork, obviously.
- When the above ingredients have formed a nice smooth-ish marinade, place the pork slices in a large plastic freezer bag and pour the paste over. Combine thoroughly.
- Marinate in the refrigerator for at least 8hrs, but 24hrs is more desirable.
- Pre-heat the oven to a moderate temperature, say 350˚F or about 185˚C. Take the pieces of pork out of the freezer bag and form into a ‘roll’ shape on a piece of aluminum foil; add plenty of the marinade before folding over and making the ‘round’ shape.
- Place the pork in the oven and prepare for some beautiful aromas. It should take around an hour to cook. The temperature (which should be measured with a meat thermometer) should be around 160˚F or 72˚C.
- For those paranoid about ‘pink’ meat, don’t despair, you can finish the pork in a grill pan to your heart’s content – which is what we’re about to do.
- Put a grill pan on the stovetop at a medium-high heat. Add some cooking oil (no, not olive oil), and add some pieces of the pork, and cook to your liking. To achieve the kind of texture that you get from the vertical spit, you need some pieces to have a little crunch.
- Place some corn tortillas in a pan to heat through.
- Place a small amount of pork on each tortilla, add a sprinkle each of cilantro, onions and pineapple (if desired), and get everyone to add their own preferred salsa.
- Have a michelada or a good stiff shot of tequila and a cold beer on the side. You could also serve with a margarita, but remember this is street food we’re celebrating!