Tacos Al Pastor: A Mexican Dish

Tacos Al Pastor are widely popular throughout Mexico as well as other countries, such as the United States. This dish typically consists of shaved spit-roasted pork, pineapple, onion, and cilantro all on top of a cooked corn tortilla. Of course there are slightly different variations of tacos al pastor in the different regions, however the preparation and cooking style of the pork remain relatively the same throughout Mexico. Tacos al pastor is prepared by first marinating pork slices in a marinade that usually contains fruit juices, chilies, and spices such as oregano, achiote, cumin, and more. After the pork is thoroughly marinated, it is then placed on a vertical spit called a ‘trompo’. As the pork spins on the trompo, the pork fat heats up and drips down to create a crispy exterior. On top of the trompo, it is common to see either a pineapple or onion that is sliced off and placed into the taco. Along with the pineapple and/or onion, cilantro is a common ingredient that is added to tacos al pastor. Depending on the region, chef, and family recipe, the tacos’ toppings vary.

The origins of tacos al pastor are linked to Lebanese immigrants who migrated to Mexico during the 1930’s. These immigrants migrated from the Ottoman Empire due to a multitude of different reasons such as evading military conscription, escaping violence, and searching for better economic opportunities. The use of the trompo was inspired by the method used to prepare Shawarma, which is spit-roasted lamb on pita bread. *Shawarma was a very popular dish in the Ottoman Empire and its popularity spread throughout the empire. The vertical spit was invented in the Ottoman Empire during the 14th century and was quickly accepted as the only way to prepare Shawarma*. During the 1930’s, some of the Lebanese immigrants opened their own restaurants in which they served the popular Middle Eastern dish. There was also a variation of shawarma that popped up called tacos arabes which was lamb on a flour tortilla. Later, during the 1960’s in Puebla, the Mexican-born children of these immigrants opened their own restaurants and put a Mexican twist onto the popular Lebanese dish. Lamb was switched out for pork, which was then marinated in a variety of spices and chilies that are popular in Mexican cuisine. The pita bread and/or flour tortilla were then switched out for corn tortillas. At one point, pineapple began to be included to the taco al pastor recipe. The origins of the inclusion of pineapple remain a food mystery to this day. It was also during the 1960’s when tacos al pastor found its way into Mexico City and gained immense popularity. Since then, tacos al pastor have become a long-lasting part of Mexican cuisine and a go-to street food choice.

In Oaxaca, there is a small restaurant called “Taqueria El Primo” which sells different Mexican tacos and dishes, including tacos al pastor. To the side of the restaurant lies the trompo, the smell of roasting pork fills the room. Like many other trompos, a top lies a pineapple that has distinct chunks missing which are evidence that the chef has already served several orders of tacos al pastor. This quaint restaurant is owned by a man named Alvaro Pedro Altamirano. Mr. Altamirano agreed to a short interview and I was able to ask him some questions with the help of Ana Becerra, who served as my translator. Mr. Altamirano was born in 1984 in Oaxaca. He learned how to make tacos al pastor from his brother who learned from their father. The restaurant he owns is family operated, his family members help as cooks and waiters. He has spent a total of 25 years making tacos al pastor, 15 of them have been at the current restaurant location. The restaurant is open from 7:00 pm to 1:00 am from Sunday to Thursday and is open until 4:00 am on both Friday and Saturday. One of the reasons for the late operating hours is that many of the dishes he serves are popular night foods. Although Mr. Altamirano says that his tacos al pastor are not the most popular dish at his restaurant, he still serves an average of 400 tacos al pastor per day and even more during the weekend. Without divulging too much detail, he told us that he picks all of his ingredients himself and marinates the pork for at least 30 minutes in the family marinade recipe. After putting the pork on the trompo, he cooks it until the restaurant opens at 7:00 pm. A grill is set up just behind the trompo where the tortillas are cooked as well as some other meats. The interview concludes when someone orders 5 tacos al pastor and Mr. Altamirano allows me to take pictures and observe him making the tacos. Mr. Altamirano cooks the corn tortillas on the grill and then shaves off slices of the pork into the tortilla and skillfully reaches up to slice off a piece of the pineapple. His movements are swift and are evidence of his years of experience. After putting cilantro and chopped onions into the corn tortilla, it is ready to be served. Mr. Altramirano and his family were so welcoming and his tacos al pastor were so delicious that I visited his restaurant all three days we stayed in Oaxaca.