Mexico’s tacos al pastor consists of corn tortillas topped with mouthwatering pork marinated with pineapple, spices and chillies, and sprinkled with white onions and cilantro. Traditionally the pork for tacos al pastor is slow-cooked on a vertical spit, but my tacos al pastor recipe has been created for home cooks without a vertical spit.
This tacos al pastor recipe is for home cooks without a vertical spit or upright grill. I developed the recipe here in Mexico, inspired by the tacos al pastor that we’ve been obsessively eating at Salón Corona, a few blocks from our Mexico City apartment. I assumed most cooks won’t have a vertical spit at home, so my aim was to achieve the same flavour and texture.
After eating tacos al pastor in Mexico City on our first trip here in the mid 1990s, and on subsequent trips to a city that became one of our favourite places in the world – especially for the food! – I knew I had to recreate one of Mexico’s most popular street food dishes one day.
The simplicity of corn tortillas topped with pork marinated with pineapple, spices and chillies, grilled on a vertical spit, and sprinkled with cilantro (coriander) and those beautiful Mexican white onions, has reminded me of the Middle East’s wonderful snack food, the shawarma – well, apart from the use of pork! There’s a reason for that.
Perhaps surprisingly to those who don’t know much about Arab immigration history, there are over a million Arabs living here in Mexico. It was Syrian and Lebanese families who brought the vertical spit to Mexico in the 1920s and used it to make shawarma in Puebla where the settled. The rest is history.
Middle Eastern shawarma, which was traditionally made with lamb in Lebanon, Syria and elsewhere in the Levant and wider Middle East, became tacos al pastor or shepherd’s style tacos in its new home of Mexico. Even after pork replaced lamb, the name stuck.
On this latest trip to Mexico, I’ve been testing a tacos al pastor recipe for home cooks. Our favourite taco joint, Salón Corona, just a couple of blocks from our holiday rental apartment in Mexico City, has driven me to the point of obsession. Here’s the result of that obsession – my tacos al pastor recipe for home cooks without a vertical spit.
Update 26 May 2023: In the 13 years since we published this tacos al pastor recipe in Mexico City in mid-2010, the history of tacos al pastor and tacos al pastor recipes have been published widely in the food media and food blogosphere, with a major mistake.
Many writers suggest tacos al pastor and tacos arabes are the same. They’re not. Tacos arabes, which actually look more like a shawarma than tacos al pastor, was invented in Puebla by an Iraqi family. More on that and a recipe for tacos arabes soon.
Tacos al Pastor Recipe for Home Cooks Without a Vertical Spit
When we tried the excellent tacos al pastor straight from the spit at humble Rosita’s Al Pastor when we lunched with Austin’s ‘taco mafia’ recently in Austin, Texas, it was the first time we’d eaten it in many years. We were hooked again. I knew tacos al pastor was worthy of further exploration and I had to develop my own tacos al pastor recipe when we got to Mexico City.
After trying tacos al pastor again in their birthplace of Mexico on our recent Mexico City street food tour with Lesley Tellez of Eat Mexico, I knew I had to find out whether you could make tacos al pastor at home and still give them the same flavour tacos al pastor made on a vertical spit, if not evoke the singular experience of eating good tacos on the streets of Mexico City.
We may have fallen in love with tacos al pastor on that first trip to Mexico back in the mid 1990s, but I’m not sure how or why we didn’t notice the shawarma-style vertical spits upon which the smoky marinated pork was grilled at the time.
We had certainly eaten a lot of shawarma and kebabs over the years in Sydney, where one of our friends owned a Lebanese restaurant. Well, we certainly noticed the marinated pork on the vertical spit this time as we made a point of trying tacos al pastor at every opportunity. And we enjoyed every mouthful of every one we ate.
But with every order of tacos al pastor, the question I kept asking myself was: is it possible to make tacos al pastor at home in other parts of the world, where Mexican food generally equates to a ghastly chain restaurant selling Tex-Mex burritos and indescribable enchiladas with lashings of horrid, bright orange cheese?
I had to admit that it would be difficult. One of the keys to making the sublime tacos al pastor as authentic as they are in Mexico is the chillies. 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 Mexican tacos al pastor recipes and I asked experts, here in Mexico and back in Austin. Everyone agreed that for an authentic Mexican tacos al pastor, 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!
First, I tried a pre-prepared al pastor mix I sourced here in Mexico City. I tried marinating a pork loin and other pork cuts for 48 hours. 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 on a tacos al pastor recipe that doesn’t require a vertical spit is now in.
Tips to Making our Tacos al Pastor Recipe
The tacos al pastor recipe below gave us the most authentic-tasting tacos al pastor I could come up with without access to a vertical spit. Was it as good as some of the fantastic tacos al pastor that we’ve been eating in Mexico and Austin? It was very close.
Is there any way you can substitute flour tortillas for corn tortillas? Absolutely not. Not for tacos al pastor. Other taco recipes, sure.
Is there anything as good as having tacos al pastor after a few drinks in Mexico City? Not a chance! But still, here it is so you can try to replicate that feeling at home.
Sure the Taco Mafia in Austin will probably order a hit on me for creating a tacos al pastor recipe that doesn’t use a vertical spit, but, hey, I’ll just send around one of my new Mexican wrestler friends!
One final note: some tacos al pastor recipes use vinegar. We don’t need no stinking vinegar. There is enough acid from the pineapple, thanks.
If you’re planning a full Mexican food feast, also see our recipes for a sopa de tortilla or tortilla soup, which I learnt to make in San Miguel de Allende, Lara’s authentic Mexican guacamole in the style a Mexican abuela would make, and our recipes for classic margaritas and micheladas, which we’ve been making here in Mexico City and San Miguel de Allende.
Update: in the years since publishing this post, we’ve added recipes for an easy red tomato salsa, the Mexican char-grilled corn on the cob street food snack elotes and Lara’s grilled corn salad, along with recipes for chili con carne, quesadillas and Lara’s ultimate nachos. Of course, a couple of those are Tex-Mex rather than Mexican recipes, but they’re all muy deliciosa.
Tacos al Pastor Recipe
- 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
- 1 dozen corn tortillas - fresh
- 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!
Do let us know if you try our tacos al pastor recipe as we’d love to know how it turns out for you.