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The True Tale of Mexico City’s Tacos al Pastor

The Middle Eastern roots of Mexico City’s street food classic 

Photos by Holly Wilmeth

Whenever my daughter-in-law flies home to see her family, she and my son have a ritual. As soon as their plane lands in Mexico City, they head straight for a stand called El Farolito in the airport food court and order a plate of tacos al pastor. It’s the gastronomic equivalent of the returning exile kneeling and kissing the tarmac.

Tacos al pastor—thin slices of pork shaved from a giant tower of layered meat rotating on a spit beside an open grill, piled onto one or two soft tortillas and topped with onions, chopped cilantro, a spear or chunks of pineapple, and a dollop of salsa—are to Mexico City what chili is to Cincinnati. My Mexican friends and relatives insist that the tacos al pastor you get elsewhere in the country are never as good as the ones served in the capital city.

What’s interesting about the local pride felt by Chilangos and Defeños (as Mexico City residents are known) is that the tacos they celebrate are a relatively recent import—
relative, that is, to Mexico’s long history. Tacos al pastor are believed to have evolved from culinary traditions that came to Mexico along with the wave of Lebanese immigration that began in the late 19th century and continued into the 1930s. The enormous cone of spiced and marinated meat (known as a trompo, or child’s top, which it resembles) is the pork version of lamb shawarma. Hence the designation al pastor—which, roughly translated, means “shepherd’s style.”

Mexico City tacos al pastorThe explanation for the pineapple, however, remains unknown.

Chilangos can be opinionated about where to find the best tacos al pastor: some champion that little taquería in their neighborhood; others single out the latest new spot. Two of the most beloved venues, El Tizoncito and El Califa, both originating in the fashionable Condesa district, have become so successful that they’ve opened branches throughout the capital and, in El Tizoncito’s case, in other Mexican cities.

My own experience is that whenever you come across a cone of pork, crowned with
a chunk of pineapple, slow cooking near a doorway or a window, and the meat’s edges are caramelized and crispy from the dripping fat, the tacos probably are excellent. Even the most passionate al pastor fans admit there’s only so much you can do with sliced pork, tortillas, and garnishes. The real secret, they say, is in the freshness, the complexity of f lavor, and the variety of the accompanying salsas. In any case, Chilangos admit that the al pastor experience is about more than the food.

“For me,” says Ian Corona, a musician who has lived in Mexico City all his life, “tacos mean nighttime. They mean going out with friends until late at night, and standing at a bar while eating. They mean fast food, but great fast food. They mean you order and the food comes right away. Tacos al pastor mean, We’re hungry. We don’t want to wait.”

One evening on a recent visit to Mexico City, I went out for a tacos al pastor crawl with my daughter-in-law, Yesenia, and my two young granddaughters. The kids were hungry, and they definitely did not want to wait. We migrated from one taquería to another, adding salsas and scarfing down tacos—three generations creating sensory memories that will bind us to this place forever.

Mexico City tacos al pastor

RECIPE: Tacos al Pastor

(SERVES 4)

By Yesenia Ruiz

INGREDIENTS

1½ pounds boneless pork tenderloin

1 clove garlic, halved

Salt and pepper

Achiote paste

Orange and lemon juice to cover

Corn oil

8 fresh corn tortillas

Fresh pineapple sliced into spears

Finely chopped cilantro and onion

MAKE IT

1. Rub the pork with garlic, salt, pepper, and achiote paste, and then marinate it in the juices for at least two hours or overnight.

2. Two hours before making tacos, remove the pork from the marinade and freeze the meat to facilitate slicing.

3. When you’re ready to cook, cut the pork into the thinnest possible slices.

4. Coat a cast-iron skillet with a thin layer of corn oil, bring up the heat to high, and fry the meat until slightly crispy on the edges.

5. Warm the corn tortillas on a flat griddle, and then scoop a generous portion of the meat into the center of a single tortilla (or a stack of two). Top the filling with a slice of pineapple and a sprinkle of chopped cilantro and onion. Fold. Serve immediately, with salsa.

This appeared in the October 2014 issue.