Beginner’s Guide to Mexican Food, Part VI: Perfect Tacos al Pastor

tacos al pastor

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Behold the beauty that is Tacos al Pastor: Soft corn tortillas stuffed with a magical, marinated substance known as pork al pastor along with grilled pineapple, salsa verde and onion!

Tacos al Pastor in all their glory – cooked by me, meticulously plated for your food porn needs by Malou from Klidmoster.dk

I know, I know… Halt your emails and messages. It has indeed been a while since our last installment of our Beginner’s Guide to Mexican Food, so let’s make it count and get geeky with it: today we are talking both an absolute classic of Mexican cuisine and a pretty rare case of fusion cuisine in which the recipe comes not actually from Mexico, or Latin America for that matter, but has, with time, become quintessentially Mexican… In pretty much the same way as Chicken Tikka Masala became quintessentially British. But more on that later.

Tacos Al Pastor, or Tacos Shepherd’s style, is not only one of the most recognizable and traditional types of Mexican tacos. In terms of numbers of ingredients and presentation, it may also be one of the simplest: Traditionally composed of slices of grilled, pork marinated in chilies and spices, pineapple, cilantro and onions nestled in a corn tortilla, this humble taco is not much of a looker, but as with so many other simple things here in life, if done right – using the proper ingredients – it may well be one of the most tasty and satisfying! Simple and humble as they are, we are talking a dish here whose history and preparation are anything but simple even if things appear that way.

We are once more entering the realm of Mexican street food: Tacos al Pastor are usually sold from small street stalls, food trucks or hole-in-wall restaurants who all aim to serve the most traditional of al pastor recipes in the most authentic of ways. In the case of tacos al pastor, tradition demands they be prepared by packing marinated hunks of pork on a spit, topping with pieces of pineapple and then roasting slowly over low heat, allowing the meat to slowly cook and char in its own juices, fats and the lightly caramelized pineapple drippings. Thin slices are shaved to order and served in a freshly warmed corn tortilla with the traditional toppings of pineapple, white onion and salsa verde.

Now, if you’re thinking this whole procedure of thinly slicing meat onto a piece of bread, garnishing simply and topping with spicy sauces sounds a little early familiar… Perhaps a bit like a totally different dish… Something you may have experienced in an entirely different part of the world… Something you’ve possibly even consumed many a late night of your youth, stumbling home from a Central European pub, you’re far from crazy… In fact, you’re on to something kiddo… The perhaps most surprising culinary fact you’ll learn today: There are clear similarities and links between Tacos al Pastor and that Middle Eastern favorite, shawarma!

Alpastor 2

Pork al Pastor cooked the original way…  We’re going to do things a little less meticulously in our home version… Sorry, bud!

 

Tacos al Pastor History: How the Lebanese gave us our favorite Mexican taco

The similarities in preparation between Tacos al Pastor and shawarma, kebab or even other Mediterranean favorites like Greek Gyros is by no means accidental. The history of Tacos al Pastor is, believe it or not, actually a curious tale of unlikely marriage between Meso-american, Spanish and Middle Eastern cultures. It began in 1892 with the arrival of the first Lebanese immigrants to Mexico. They shipped out from Beirut aboard ships from France for reasons that are not entirely clear to my sources. But landed in the new world they did, making new (often lucrative) lives for themselves and bringing with them fascinating culinary traditions from the old country, such as that of spit roasting large hunks of meats over a slow fire, a tradition known as döner kebab – or shawarma.

Over time, these old-country culinary tradition mixed with local flavors and traditions that had, as mentioned in a previous post, already fused heavily with Spanish influences. This melting pot of flavors and cultures eventually morphed into what became al pastor: pork marinated in copious amounts of chili, spices and fresh lime juice, then packed tightly on a rotisserie, topped with pineapple for taste and decoration then slow roasted over coals or a low open flame. As it cooks, the meat slowly bastes itself with its own juices before eventually charring beautifully on the surface, ready for slicing and plating. It’s quite a setup, quite a spectacle to behold – and quite a bit of work to pull off at home – even for those as curious as the likes of myself and my loyal readers.t

So, for this – our home version of perfect Tacos al Pastor – we will (for a change) try to keep things a little simple by cooking an “easy” home version of Tacos al Pastor that has all the flavors and character of street food version albeit with a little less flash, a little less work and a lot less special equipment needed.

 

Cooking Tacos al Pastor at home – with a little help from my friends

That’s right, no need to fly out and buy a rotisserie or open flame propane roasting rig here (aww, sorry, bud!) we’ll get by with a simple low and slow heat source (i.e.) to start things up and a single stupid hot heat source to finish things up: chose your favorite cast iron pan or blazing hot charcoal grill for the purpose.

We will then apply a three-tier cooking process involving a marinade, a low and slow cook and a sear to top things off and create those additional caramelized flavors that are traditional of pork al pastor. Cheating? Uh, I prefer to look at it as twisting things to our advantage. And fear not, young grasshopper, we’ll get plenty geeky and in-depth about things!

For the purpose of this post, I got together with my good friend and blogging colleague Malou from Klidmoster.dk for a summer afternoon of Corona-infused cooking fun during which she played (quite well, I might add) the part of my assistant chef, beautiful assistant, and bearer of a female sense of aesthetics that helped plate and present tings much better than The Sloppy Johan could ever manage on his own. For this I am eternally grateful and with that out of the way, let’s get on with the taco show and our top tips for homemade Tacos al Pastor!

 

Tacos al Pastor tips: Pork shoulder is the right meat for the job

Tacos al Pastor are traditionally cooked low and slow and for such a procedure, we need a cut that is not only high in flavor, but also relatively high in connective tissue and fat. One cut fits this purpose perfectly, our old BBQ favorite: pork shoulder! Granted, alternatives are available and other food geeks have spent a lot of time testing their suitability for the purpose. In the end, however, it all falls back on pork shoulder for two simple reasons: taste and texture!

Pork shoulder, glorious, glorious pork shoulder has that perfect mix of meat, tasty fat that will melt down during cooking, basting the meat from inside out, and that interesting substance known as connective tissue or collagen. Tough and inedible in its natural form, collagen will, through the magic of low and slow cooking dissolve into gelatin: An entirely edible and yummy substance that gives pulled pork and other slow cooked dishes their unique juiciness and lip-smacking mouthfeel.

iberico pork shoulder for luxury tacos al pastor

Behold the wonders of creation! This is Iberico pork shoulder – a cut of epic beauty!

Aside from snout, shanks and trotters, pork shoulder may easily be the least expensive cut on the pig, so right about now is a perfect excuse to get some decent pork for your cooking projects! Even if you opt to splurge, like I did here, and treat your beautiful assistant and executive plating chef with a piece of Iberico pork shoulder like the one pictured, your total investment will be relatively humble. In other words, this is your excuse to go out and get that organic, free-range, happy-lived pork for the purpose. It really makes a world of difference in flavor without putting the price through the roof as it would with some more shall we say posh cuts of meat!

Good pork makes better Pastor! Got it? Good! We’ve gotten ourselves a nice piece of pork shoulder. Now is the time to treat it well!

 

Tacos al Pastor tips: Crafting the perfect marinade

While slow cooked pork shoulder is a tasty treat on its own, it wouldn’t be pork al pastor without the right seasonings and in the case of pork al pastor, these seasonings come in the shape of an al pastor marinade.

Al pastor marinade is a spicy and exotic concoction consisting mainly of our by now near signature blend of whole, dried chili peppers: nutty and earthy ancho chilies, fruity guajillo chilies, fiery chile de arbols coupled with smoky chipotles packed in tangy adobo sauce. Why this trifecta of chilies and why mainly dried? The short answer is that difference chilies provide different flavors and that different flavors provide more depth of flavor. Dried chilies simply retain their flavor better than ground chilies. If you’re curious, you can read much more about the reasoning behind my madness in our lengthy carne asada post. Or you can just take your buddy Johan’s word for it.

This fiery blend of chilies is coupled with a few aromatics and some of our favorite Mexican spices in the shape of Mexican oregano and cumin. For a sweet and sour exotic twang, we will add a bit of lime juice as well as some sugar to balance things out and create a perfect marinade in which bright flavors and earthy undertones blend beautifully with the bold flavors of the meat, creating an altogether tender, drippingly juicy, beautifully nuanced, sweet and savory, delightfully smoky spicy experience with notes of fresh herbs, spices and exotic juices… But wait a damn moment, the attentive, regular reader cries out…

We’ve already gone to great lengths talking about marinades in our carne asada episode of the series where we discovered, amongst other interesting facts, that while marinades provide great flavor, they are mainly used for seasoning the surfaces of meats and hence are best suited for thin cuts, not large cuts like brisket or pork shoulder.

So? What am I suggesting here? That we abandon our sacred principles and give into internet hearsay and culinary myths? That we coat the surface of a large piece of meat and simply pretend that it magically has some sort of effect on the piece as a whole? No! What kind of food blogger do you think I am?! The thing is, people, marinades can be used to flavor larger pieces of meat, provided we wield our trusted chef knife and do a bit of butchery first!

marinated pork al pastor

Marinated pork al pastor – ready for further processing!

Think about it, have you ever seen a shawarma shaped piece of meat in the freezer section of your local supermarket? No, you haven’t, and you know why? Because these are crafted by taking one or more cuts of suitable meat, slicing them up, marinating them and then stacking them back together on a spit, hence creating an evenly seasoned and flavored piece of frankenmeat!

And even if we don’t plan to perform an elaborate roasting setup here, it’s this exact methodology we will employ here. Divide and conquer to ensure maximum flavor. It’s all about surface area here: by slicing the meat thinly and brushing it evenly with marinade, we ensure even coverage and even flavor in every bite of our tacos to be. Even if the slices are stacked back together and cooked, it will still feel like an even marinated hunk of meat as the marinade is trapped in the cervices between the slices, seasoning the frankenmeat from the inside out during cooking. And speaking of cooking, guess what’s next?

 

Tacos al Pastor tips: Slow cooked is well-cooked

Even if we have gone and severely hurt our pork shoulder by slicing it up and pounding it thin, the third secret to perfect pork al pastor is still a low and slow cooking process. As mentioned above, pork shoulder is full of fat and connective tissue, two flavorful substances that do, however, need a fair bit of cooking time to melt down to a consistency where we would actually consider eating them. Preferably without overcooking those tasty meaty bits in the process.

Low, slow and even heat is the key here. But how do we achieve a perfect result here if we assume for a moment that we (sadly) don’t have access to a restaurant-style rotisserie rig? Luckily for our project, low and slow heat sources come in many shapes and forms. For the purpose of this post, I – for example – had my wonderful assistant vacuum seal my pork al pastor slices and then cooked them sous vide – i.e. low and slow in a water bath – for about half a day… Simplicity, after all is key…

sous vide setup

Getting technical here…

Alright, alright.. I’m kidding! I do realize such a setup is out of most people’s reach, so here’s a simple home setup for homemade perfect Pork al Pastor: Use your friendly home oven! Pack your marinated slices tightly in a casserole or other oven-safe dish, cover and place in a 150 degree oven for a good 3-4 hours. That’s it! Simple and fool-proof Pork al Pastor in the comfort of your own home with no special equipment!

The only downside to this low and slow cooking method, really, is that it willnot give us the sear and grilled flavors that we know and love from the original version of Pork al Pastor , but don’t worry, we’ve got more tricks up our sleeves and they involve our old friend, Mr. Cast Iron in one form or another.

 

Tacos al Pastor tips: Finishing, plating and serving

Before serving up our perfect homemade Tacos al Pastor, we will need to perform one last step and that step involves heating up either our trusty old charcoal grill or (perhaps less overkill) our trusty old cast iron pan to a stage of screaming hotness. It’s time to give our already perfectly cooked meat that signature slight char we know and love from spot-roasted Pork al Pastor! We will do so quite simply by giving our pork a few quick tosses over screaming high heat before resting for a few minutes, slicing thinly and serving.

A bit excessive, you say? Ah yes, I realize you might think so since the meat is already perfectly cooked, but here’s the deal people – the devil is in the details, and it’s attention to devils details that separates a really good home cook from an excellent home cook.

While not technically necessary, this final sear will caramelize the marinade onto the surface of the meat, creating new levels of flavor while beautifully mimicking the slightly charred spots created by the rotisserie process and imparting an authentic, lightly grilled flavor. Oh, and speaking of grilled flavor, you’ll make sure to also char a few pieces of pineapple for garnish. This is usually done in the spit-roasting process but since we’ve sort of eliminated that step, we’ll need to do it now. Cooking pineapple over high heat, really boosts the sweetness and tropical intensity of this strange fruit to a beautiful caramelized note somewhere between sweet and savory – the perfect mix for this application.

And that really is about the last of our worries. As for serving, there’s no other way to go than traditional and simple: Serve up your beautifully prepared pork al pastor on warm, soft corn tortillas (recipe here) and top simply with grilled pineapple, chopped white onions, cilantro and maybe a little homemade salsa verde for an added kick. Simplicity at its finest and sexiest. Add a few col d Coronas on the side and Juan’s your uncle! You’ve nailed another legendary Mexican classic: Tacos al Pastor!

homemade corn tortillas ready for eating

Want to go all in? Serve your Tacos al Pastor on homemade corn tortillas – I’ve got an easy to follow recipe for you right here!

Now, I realize that this approach is not the shortest route to great Mexican food, but it may well be the best. I mean, it’s certainly less involved than the original rotisserie version and while still somewhat of a lengthy process, it’s not particularly involved at all. Aside from whipping up a marinade and exercising violence on a large neck muscle, it’s mainly a waiting game for the slow cook to finish. Nothing, really, that a few Coronas over the course of a few hours won’t take care of…

And if you’re really out to impress, why not cease the excuse to finally whip out a few homemade corn tortillas while you’re drinking waiting? Remember friends, time spent impressing friends and/or romantic interests is time well spent. As is drinking beer. Why not combine the two into the perfect late Saturday afternoon?

chips salsa and coronas

Alright, you may not want to take life advice from your buddy Johan, but you will want to try this recipe!

 

Perfect Tacos al Pastor Recipe

Perfect, easy and fool-proof recipe for making Mexican Tacos al Pastor at home - without special equipment

Author Johan

Ingredients

  • 1 kilo pork shoulder
  • 2 dried ancho chilies
  • 2 dried guajillo chilies
  • 1 dried chile de arbol
  • 1 chipotle pepper in adobo sauce
  • 150 ml chicken stock
  • 100 ml freshly squeezed lime juice
  • 1 medium white onion quartered
  • 3 garlic cloves peeled and left whole
  • 1 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano
  • 2 teaspoons cumin
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 teaspoons sugar

To serve:

  • 1 small pineapple peeled, cored and cut into quarters lengthwise
  • 1 bunch fresh cilantro stems removed, leaves finely chopped
  • 1 medium white onion finely diced
  • 12 corn tortillas see recipe link in post
  • salsa verde see recipe link in post

Instructions

  1. Destem dried chilies and shake out their seeds best as you can.
  2. Toast dried chilies in a dry cast-iron pan for a few minutes until fragrant and somewhat pliable
  3. Add dried chilies to a small sauce pan along with garlic cloves and the quartered white onion.
  4. Cover chilies and aromatics with chicken stock and bring to a boil, then back down the heat and simmer for about 20-30 minutes until chilies are entirely hydrated and soft.

  5. Turn off the heat, add the chipotle pepper plus one tablespoon of adobo sauce, then blend chili mixture with an immersion blender until completely smooth to form the base of an al pastor marinade.

  6. Add oregano, cumin, salt, sugar and lime juice to marinade, stir to combine and set aside to cool.
  7. Using your sharpest knife, cut the pork shoulder into  slices, then carefully pound each slice into a 5mm or so thickness, using either a meat mallet, a heavy pan or the palm of your hand.

  8. Place meat slices in a lidded oven-proof dish and cover with the marinade. Using your hands, carefully distribute and massage the marinade into the meat – we want full coverage.

  9. Cover meat and leave to marinade in the fridge for about two hours.

  10. Remove meat from fridge and preheat oven to 150C.
  11. Cover the dish with a lid, parchment or foil and slide into the oven. Cook for about 3-4 hours or until fat and juices have rendered and the meat is tender but not completely pulling apart.

  12. Remove meat from the oven and preheat a cast iron pan (or grill) to a state of blazing hotness. Add a generous amount of oil and then the meat slices a few at a time, searing them briefly until caramelized on the surface and lightly blackened in spots.
  13. Once seared, transfer meat slices back to the oven-proof dish and allow them to soak in their own juices for a few minutes.

  14. While meat is resting, fry the pineapple quarters in the same pan for a few minutes on each side, then quickly cut them into small chunks using a sharp knife.

To serve:

  1. Using a sharp knife, chop or slice the meat into smaller pieces, then toss generously in the rendered fat and juices.
  2. Place on a double layer of corn tortillas and top with pineapple chunks, minced white onion, cilantro and a slathering of salsa verde – or other salsa of choice.
  3. Consume hungrily with plenty of napkins and cold Coronas on the side.

And there we have it: (almost) authentic Tacos al Pastor – our first stab at Mexican Lebanese fusion cooking! Look splendid, do they not?

But obviously one question remains: Are these really as good as the ones made using the original procedure? Well, put it this way: flavor-wise they’re as good as any I’ve ever had! The only real difference here is in texture. As tacos al pastor are generally made from large hunks of meat that have been forcefully squeezed together to form one larger whole, their texture are more like that of shaved shawarma or gyros meat where ours are made from sliced meat, giving them more of a chopped meat texture.

And call me biased, but I actually prefer this slightly looser, slightly juicier texture – whether authentic or not. If you’re of a different opinion, or want to explore other possibilities, I suggest giving this approach by the amazingly geeky J. Kenji Lopez-Alt over at Serious Eats a go: It should give you just about the right textural integrity of the real thing.

The key takeaway here is that traditional tacos al pastor do not demand a whole lot of effort and special equipment. This Mexican classic can and should be made at home for your next Mexican themed party. Add a few beers, some chips, homemade salsa and guacamole, season with tall tales about Lebanese immigrants and shawarmas impact on Mexican street food and your guests will hail you as the rightful King or Queen of Mexican cooking that you are!

johan johansen is cool

Homemade Tacos al Pastor? Cool!

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