Tacos al pastor are a popular Mexican street food consisting of thin slices of pork that are marinated and roasted on a vertical rotisserie called a trompo. The meat is then sliced off the trompo and served in small corn or flour tortillas, typically with onions, cilantro, pineapple, and salsa. But what cut of pork is actually used to make authentic tacos al pastor?
The traditional cut of meat used for tacos al pastor is pork shoulder, also known as Boston butt or Boston shoulder. This cut comes from the upper part of the front leg of the pig. It contains a good balance of fat and meat, which allows the pork to become very tender and juicy during the marinating and cooking process.
Origins of Tacos Al Pastor
Tacos al pastor have their origins in Lebanese shawarma brought to Mexico by Lebanese immigrants. The thin slices of marinated lamb roasted on a vertical rotisserie were adapted in Mexico using locally available ingredients like pork and pineapple.
The name “al pastor” comes from the Spanish term “al pastoril” meaning shepherd-style, in reference to the rotisserie method of cooking vertically on a trompo which vaguely resembles a shepherd’s staff. This style of vertical roasting was inspired by the shawarma spits used in Lebanon.
From Shawarma to Tacos Al Pastor
In the 1930s-1950s, Lebanese immigrants like Juan and Pedro Baos established shawarma restaurants and stands in Mexico City. They sliced thin pieces of marinated lamb from a vertical spit to serve in pita bread. Locals adapted this method using pork shoulder which was widely available, affordable, and popular in Mexico.
Pineapple, an ingredient native to Mexico, began to be used to tenderize and flavor the meat. Onions, cilantro, and salsa were added as taco fillings. And tacos al pastor were born – bringing the flavors of Middle Eastern shawarma to Mexico’s iconic street tacos.
Why Use Pork Shoulder for Tacos Al Pastor?
While different cuts of pork may be used, there are some specific reasons why pork shoulder is considered ideal for making authentic tacos al pastor:
Well-Balanced Fat Content
Pork shoulder contains a higher fat content than loin cuts like tenderloin. This fat helps keep the meat juicy and tender as it cooks on the vertical spit. The fat also bastes the meat from the inside out.
Pork shoulder contains more connective tissue than loin cuts. Connective tissue is composed of collagen, which breaks down into gelatin when cooked slowly over high heat. This gelatin keeps the meat succulent.
Pork shoulder is an affordable cut that’s well-suited to street tacos. It provides excellent flavor and texture without the price tag of loin cuts like pork chops.
The moderate fat content and connective tissue in pork shoulder contribute to its rich, meaty flavor when roasted. This makes it a perfect match for the bold marinades used for tacos al pastor.
Pork shoulder is widely available, even in Mexico’s street markets and butcher shops. This makes it easier to obtain than other cuts for making tacos al pastor.
The Marinating and Cooking Process
One of the keys to delicious tacos al pastor is the marinating and cooking process. Here is how the pork shoulder is transformed:
The pork shoulder is cut into thin slices then marinated in a blend of dried chilies, spices, vinegar, pineapple juice, and other ingredients. Common marinade components include:
– Guajillo and ancho chilies – For red color and mild flavor
– Dried chilies de arbol – For intense heat
– Orange juice
– Salsa inglesa – A Mexican vinegar-based condiment
– Pineapple juice or bits – For sweetness and tenderizing
Stacking and Rotating
The marinated meat slices are stacked and layered onto the center of the trompo or vertical spit. As the spit rotates, the outer layers of meat cook and get sliced off for tacos. The inner layers move to the outside to cook evenly.
Cooking Over Open Flame
The vertical spit is cooked slowly over an open flame. This allows the pork shoulder to roast evenly and absorb the flavors of the marinade. The fat and connective tissue gradually break down, leaving meat that is juicy, tender and full of flavor.
Slicing and Serving
As the outer layer of meat on the trompo finishes cooking, the taco vendor trims thin slices which fall onto a circular pan below. The slices of roasted pork are chopped into smaller pieces and served warm in tortillas with onion, cilantro, salsa, and pineapple.
Other Pork Cuts Used for Tacos Al Pastor
While pork shoulder is the go-to cut for authentic tacos al pastor, several other cuts of pork may also be used, depending on availability and cost.
Some taco stands use pork loin, a leaner and more affordable cut. But loin lacks the fat and collagen content to keep the meat as moist. Marinating and basting during cooking can help prevent dryness.
Pork Leg (Ham)
Pork leg, also called fresh ham, can be used for tacos al pastor as a leaner and meatier alternative to shoulder. The leg requires long marinating but retains moisture well when cooked correctly.
Pork butt, despite its name, comes from the upper shoulder. It contains high marbling which helps keep the sliced meat tender. Pork butt needs careful trimming but produces flavorful tacos al pastor.
Lean pork sirloin lacks fat, so it requires longer marinating and frequent basting on the spit. Cooked carefully, it can make tasty and healthier tacos al pastor.
Cooking Methods for Tacos Al Pastor
While the traditional trompo method is iconic, tacos al pastor can also be made using some different cooking techniques:
On a Grill
The stacked, marinated pork can be grilled on skewers over a charcoal or gas grill. Turning the skewers mimics the rotating trompo. Pineapple slices can be grilled alongside the meat.
In the Oven
Marinated pork shoulder can be roasted in the oven at 400°F, layered like it would be on a vertical spit. Roasting replicates the even, high heat.
In a Skillet
Chopped, marinated pork shoulder can be cooked in a skillet on the stovetop. The meat is browned and caramelized to develop the flavors.
On a Rotisserie
A horizontal rotisserie can be used to cook several marinated pork trompos rotating at once. The meat slices off evenly.
In a Slow Cooker
Layered, marinated pork shoulder cooks low and slow in a slow cooker. The collagen converts to gelatin for tender texture.
Serving Tacos Al Pastor
Tacos al pastor are served simply with just a few essential accompaniments:
Corn or Flour Tortillas
The sliced and chopped meat is stuffed into soft corn or flour tortillas to make tacos. Two or three small tacos are typically served per order.
Onions and Cilantro
Diced white or red onions and freshly chopped cilantro add a crunchy, aromatic contrast to the rich pork.
Small chunks of juicy pineapple provide sweetness and fruitiness to balance the spicy meat.
Salsa choices include fresh pico de gallo, avocado-tomatillo salsa, or sour cream-based crema. The salsa adds a tangy, spicy kick.
Squeezed fresh lime juice brightens up the tacos al pastor with acidity and citrus aroma.
Variations Around Mexico
Tacos al pastor vary slightly across different regions of Mexico:
Mexico City Style
Mexico City style features a red marinade made with guajillo chilies. The meat is skewered with pineapple during cooking. Onions, cilantro and salsa are used as condiments.
Central Mexico Style
In central states like Puebla, white onions pickled in lime juice are added. The marinade has achoite spice and sour orange juice.
Northern Mexico Style
Northern Mexico tacos al pastor use flour tortillas more often. They may include cheese, avocado, tomatoes and chipotle salsa in the toppings.
Southern Mexico Style
Southern regions like Oaxaca and Yucatan make tacos al pastor on the thinner, faster trompo. Condiments include cabbage, radish, avocado and habanero salsa.
Why Tacos Al Pastor Are So Popular
There are several reasons why tacos al pastor have become such a beloved and ubiquitous street food in Mexico:
The marinade and long cooking time produces pork that is full of flavor – spicy, savory, sweet and salty from the chilies, spices, pineapple and salsa.
The meat remains juicy and succulent thanks to the rendering fat and gelatin from collagen. Yet the outer surface gets nicely crisped.
The scent of the pork roasting over an open fire with onions and pineapple is mouthwateringly irresistible.
Watching the taco master slice the rotating trompo is an engaging, appetizing show that draws in customers.
Diners can add their choice of various salsas, toppings and garnishes to suit their personal tastes.
With its soft tortilla, flavorful meat, creamy salsa, and crisp vegetables, tacos al pastor strike a satisfying balance of textures and flavors.
Tacos are walk-around, on-the-go street food. Their compact size and hand-held format adds to their appeal.
Tacos Al Pastor Around the World
The delicious tacos al pastor have spread from Mexico around the globe, particularly to places with Mexican immigrant communities. Here are some places they can be found internationally:
Taco trucks and taquerias in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and other cities serve authentic tacos al pastor carved from trompos.
In El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica, and Panama, tacos al pastor are popular with similar marinades and toppings as Mexico.
Colombia, Peru, Argentina, Chile and Venezuela have adopted tacos al pastor, especially in cities with many Mexican restaurants.
In Spain, France and the UK, tacos al pastor are most commonly found at Mexican restaurants, food trucks and festivals.
Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and China have developed their own fusion tacos al pastor using local ingredients.
Shoulder Is Still Best for Authenticity
While other cuts of pork may be used around the world, for the true, original flavor and texture of tacos al pastor, pork shoulder reigns supreme. The moderate marbling and collagen content produce juicy, tender yet flavorful meat when marinated and cooked properly.
Mexico’s iconic tacos al pastor earned global fame for good reason. Using the traditional pork shoulder ensures an authentic, delicious taco experience. Experiment with other cuts, but come back to the classic for the real deal.
Tacos al pastor showcase Mexico’s genius for blending culinary traditions into something new and uniquely their own. Lebanese shawarma was transformed into a Mexican street food classic that’s now beloved around the world. The complex marinade and method yield incredibly flavorful, juicy and satisfying tacos. While variations exist, pork shoulder remains the ideal cut to use for authentic tacos al pastor worthy of Mexico City.