Photos by Holly Wilmeth
The classic Mexican dish is believed to be based on shawarma spit-grilled meat brought by Lebanese immigrants.
Tacos al pastor are a serious source of pride in Mexico’s capital. Here’s what you need to know to track down the tastiest tacos on your next trip—plus how to create them at home.
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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.”
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The explanation for the pineapple, however, remains unknown.
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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 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.
Recipe by Yesenia Ruiz
This article originally appeared online in August 2014; it was updated in December 2017 to include current information.
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