Mexican cuisine is known for its vibrant flavors, diverse ingredients, and creative dishes that bring different meats together into delicious combinations. One iconic example of a Mexican dish featuring an assortment of meats is tacos al pastor.
What are Tacos Al Pastor?
Tacos al pastor are a popular street food in Mexico that consist of thin slices of marinated pork that are roasted on a vertical rotisserie called a “trompo.” The roasted pork is then sliced off the trompo and served on small corn tortillas along with onions, cilantro, salsa, lime, and pineapple. The dish gets its name “al pastor” because the marinated pork resembles shawarma which was brought to Mexico by Lebanese immigrants. The vertical rotisserie cooking method was also adapted from shawarma spit-grilled meat.
While the marinated pork is the star ingredient, tacos al pastor are often served with a variety of other meat fillings as well. Common proteins you may find stuffed into tacos al pastor include:
- Chorizo – Spicy Mexican pork sausage
- Carne Asada – Grilled steak
- Pollo – Shredded chicken
- Lengua – Beef tongue
- Tripas – Beef tripe
- Carnitas – Braised pork
- Alambre – Grilled beef and bell peppers
Tacos al pastor offer an ideal vessel to deliver a mixture of meats in one dish. The sliced pork forms the base while the other proteins provide more layers of flavor and texture.
History of Tacos Al Pastor
The origins of tacos al pastor date back to the 1960s in Puebla, Mexico. At the time, Lebanese immigrants owned and operated many of the taco stands in the city. Drawing inspiration from Middle Eastern shawarma, they created a method for marinating pork in chiles and spices, then vertically roasting it on a rotisserie to replicate the shavings of meat in their home cuisine. The cooking style proved popular and tacos al pastor soon spread to Mexico City where the dish was further refined into the version most people recognize today.
In the capital, the famous Taqueria Los Parados is credited with adding the finishing touch of pineapple to tacos al pastor. The sweet, tangy fruit provides a contrast to the savory meat that enhances the flavors. It also helps tenderize the pork while cooking. Over time, the golden roasted pineapple speared at the top of the trompo has become symbolic of tacos al pastor.
Ingredients in Tacos Al Pastor
While the ingredients in tacos al pastor can vary depending on who is preparing them, there are some core components that make the dish:
The traditional choice for tacos al pastor is pork shoulder or leg. The cut of meat needs to contain enough fat to remain juicy and absorb all the spices in the marinade.
Pineapple is an essential ingredient for its sweetness and tenderizing effect on the meat. Cubes of fresh pineapple are skewered above the rotating meat so the juices drip down onto it while cooking.
Guajillo chiles provide the base for the red coloring and mild heat in the marinade paste. They have a rich, fruity flavor.
Dried Chiles de Árbol
For extra spice, some recipes call for dried chiles de árbol which rate around 15,000-30,000 on the Scoville scale.
Common seasonings in the marinade include garlic, allspice, bay leaves, cumin, clove, cinnamon, and nutmeg.
Mexican adobo sauce, made from guajillo chiles, garlic, vinegar, salt and spices, brings bold flavor to the pork.
Ground annatto seeds create the red-orange achiote paste that adds earthiness and color.
Orange juice gives the marinade tanginess to balance the spices.
Marinade for Tacos Al Pastor
One of the keys to delicious tacos al pastor is allowing time for the meat to marinate to let the flavors permeate fully. Most recipes call for at least 12 hours of marinating time. Here is a typical marinade recipe:
|Guajillo chiles, dried||5-7 oz (140-200g)|
|Chiles de árbol, dried||3-5, optional|
|White vinegar||1/4 cup (60ml)|
|Water||1 cup (240ml)|
|Pork shoulder||3 lbs (1.4kg)|
|Orange juice||1/2 cup (120ml)|
|Achiote paste||2 tbsp|
|Dried oregano||1 tsp|
|Salt||1 1/2 tsp|
To make the marinade:
- Remove seeds and stems from dried chiles then toast lightly to bring out flavors.
- Boil chiles in water until softened. Drain, reserving water.
- Blend chiles, garlic, vinegar, 1/2 cup reserved water, orange juice, achiote, and spices into a paste.
- Rub marinade all over pork and let sit 12-24 hours.
How to Cook Tacos Al Pastor
Traditionally, tacos al pastor are cooked on a vertical rotisserie. If you have access to a trompo, here are the steps:
- Skewer marinated pork onto the center of the trompo.
- Slide pineapple cubes onto skewer above pork.
- Turn on rotisserie to spin over flame or burner.
- Cook for 1-2 hours until pork reaches internal temperature of 160°F (71°C).
- Slice off outer layer of pork as it cooks.
- Chop meat into smaller pieces to serve in tacos.
For home cooking, the pork can be prepared a couple different ways to mimic the rotisserie effect:
On the Grill
Grill pork shoulder over indirect heat, constantly basting with marinade until cooked through and charred.
In the Broiler
Broil pork belly slices or chops 4-6 inches from heat, flipping and basting until desired charring.
In the Skillet
Pan fry thin slices of pork in a little oil to quickly char the outside.
How to Assemble Tacos Al Pastor
Once the meat is cooked, it’s time to build your tacos al pastor:
- Warm corn tortillas on the grill or in a pan.
- Place 2-3 slices of pork in each tortilla.
- Top with minced white onion and cilantro.
- Add salsa, lime juice, and a pineapple slice.
- Garnish with other meats like chorizo, steak, or chicken if desired.
5 Variations on Tacos Al Pastor
While the traditional pork and pineapple combo is hard to beat, tacos al pastor are also delicious made with:
Substitute chicken thigh meat marinated in adobo sauce and achiote.
Use sliced skirt or flank steak in place of pork.
Grilled, marinated mahi mahi or shrimp work nicely.
For a vegetarian taco, roast portobello mushrooms seasoned with chile powder.
Young green jackfruit takes on the flavors of the marinade for a meatless option.
Tacos Al Pastor Around Mexico
Every taqueria and street vendor puts their own spin on tacos al pastor. Here are some popular places around Mexico to enjoy outstanding versions:
- El Huequito – Historic spot claiming to be the originators.
- El Tizoncito – Renowned chain with multiple locations.
- Los Parados – Credited with inventing the pineapple technique.
- Tacos Árabes – Where the shawarma-style tacos first emerged.
- La Poblanita – Local favorite for classic Poblano-style.
- Tacos Progreso – Serves giant tacos overflowing with meat.
- Tacos Lola – Creative flavors like cocunut shrimp pastor.
- Taqueria Al Pastor – Renowned for their perfectly seasoned pork.
- Taqueria Los Primos – Stuff their tacos with both pork and beef.
Playa del Carmen
- Tacos La Eufemia – Casual beach spot with big portions.
- El Fogon – Also serves quesadillas filled with pastor.
Top Taquerias in the United States for Tacos Al Pastor
Taco lovers don’t have to travel to Mexico to enjoy amazing tacos al pastor. Many restaurants and food trucks all across the United States bring authentic flavored pastor to local communities. Here are some of the top rated spots serving tacos al pastor:
|Tacos El Gordo||Chula Vista, CA|
|Los Tacos No. 1||New York City, NY|
|Taco Veloz||Austin, TX|
|Maskadores Taco Truck||Dallas, TX|
|Taqueria El Asador||Chicago, IL|
|La Autentica Birrieria||Portland, OR|
|Las Palmas Taco Truck||Los Angeles, CA|
|Tacos La Mezcla||Miami, FL|
|Don Patron Mexican Restaurant||Nashville, TN|
|Los Tacos No. 1||Brooklyn, NY|
Make Tacos Al Pastor at Home
With the right ingredients and techniques, you can create fantastic tacos al pastor without access to a trompo rotisserie. Try this recipe at home:
- 3 dried guajillo chiles
- 1 cup pineapple juice
- 1/2 white onion
- 4 garlic cloves
- 1 tsp oregano
- 1 tsp ground cumin
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp pepper
- 2 tbsp achiote paste
- Rehydrate chiles in hot water for 15 minutes until softened.
- Blend all marinade ingredients together into a smooth paste.
- 2 lbs pork shoulder, sliced into 1/2″ pieces
- 1 sliced pineapple, cored
- Corn tortillas
- Chopped onions
- Lime wedges
- Coat pork slices in marinade and refrigerate 12-24 hours.
- Cook pork on grill or under broiler, basting with marinade until charred and cooked through.
- Chop pork into smaller pieces.
- Heat tortillas; fill with pork, onions, cilantro, salsa and pineapple.
- Squeeze lime juice over tacos before serving.
Tacos al pastor bring together the bright, savory flavors of Mexican cuisine into one incredible dish. While the marinated pork is the central component, the tacos shine when stuffed with a variety of meats like chorizo, steak, chicken, tongue, or tripe along with customary toppings of cilantro, onion, salsa, and pineapple. Getting authentic tacos al pastor requires a vertical rotisserie, but home cooks can improvise methods to recreate the meat’s charred texture and smoky taste. Whether enjoyed from a street cart in Mexico City or a restaurant in any US town, tacos al pastor satisfy all cravings for a Mexican meal with various meats in one unforgettable bite.