On a 2019 trip to Mexico City, we went to some fancy restaurants — like Quintonil and Contramar — but the best food we had, the food that delivered the most joy and by far the best value for the peso, was purchased from street vendors. Of all the street food we’ve enjoyed in Mexico, a personal and perennial favorite is tacos al pastor.
Tacos al pastor — or tacos “in the style of shepherds” — are simply tortillas filled with marinated spit-roasted pork, with tender pieces of cooked pineapple, and sometimes onion, cilantro, or salsa.
Tacos al pastor originated in the Mexican state of Puebla, a region rich in culinary history that also gave the world mole poblano, the dark red-brown sauce containing dozens of ingredients, as well as chalupas, the small tortillas, fried and topped with meat and salsa.
Many Mexican foods reflect foreign influences. Tortas ahogadas, the crusty bread rolls filled with meat and “drowned” in tomato sauce, reflect the influence of the bread-loving French who occupied the country under Emperor Maximillian — and you can still find many French-inspired pastries in Mexico City bakeries. Pigs arrived in the new world with the Spanish, and tacos al pastor use the indigenous tortilla to enfold pork, cooked on a spit. Spit-roasting is a cooking technique brought to Mexico by the Lebanese, who are also responsible for the taco el arabe, which is lamb (usually unmarinated), cooked shawarma-style and sliced onto a pita.
In Mexico City and elsewhere throughout the country, tacos al pastor are filled with meat cut off the trompo, the cone of spitted meat, crowned with a chunk of pineapple, which is traditionally mounted on top and grilled along with the marinated pork. Accomplished street vendors demonstrate their remarkable dexterity and knife-craft by skillfully slicing off chunks of meat from the trompo and then delicately flipping little pieces of pineapple and sometimes onion onto the meat in the tortilla.
Grilling meat on the trompo maximizes flavor by allowing the delicious meat and pineapple juices to drain down, adding to the flavor of the meat all along the way. Pineapple is an excellent accompaniment, not only for its sweet acidity, which complements the pork, but because it contains bromelain, a protein-digestive enzyme, which tenderizes the meat and helps us digest it.
At Oak Park’s recently opened Tacos 76 (838 Madison St.) I ordered a lunch of two tacos al pastor. The meat was crisp, which is a major plus, but the pineapple was barely warm. Now I’m no stickler for authenticity, but I would argue that the deliciousness quotient of pineapple — a traditional accompaniment to pork — is enhanced by letting it cook and caramelize just a little bit. A few slivers of the pineapple are best on tacos al pastor, so that the flavors don’t overwhelm the marinated pork, the star of the show.
November is Native American Heritage Month, and food like tacos al pastor is just one of the very many culinary gifts of the indigenous people from the far southern edge of North America. To honor the many contributions of indigenous cooks, have a taco al pastor from Tacos 76 (which, alas, does not yet have a website), Tacos el Tio #4, or Taco Mucho, which offers a chicken al pastor, suitable for those avoiding pork.