Tacos Al Pastor
A well made Tacos al Pastor is a thing of beauty. Full of subtle flavors, this recipe is the perfect balance between sweet and savory. Most popular in Mexico City, restaurants can thrive or die on this one dish. Despite the love affair Mexico has with it’s Tacos al Pastor (shepherd’s style taco), it’s origin is Lebanese/Turkish/Greek. In the Mediterranean, marinated lamb is layered and cooked on a vertical spit. Immigrants from this region brought the dish to Mexico where it became an instant hit, using pork rather than lamb, seasoned with the indigenous flavors of Mexico.
The result of this Lebanese/Mexican fusion is the King of Tacos: Tacos al Pastor. Pork, most often pork shoulder, is sliced thin and marinated overnight with a mixture of chilies, spices and achiote paste (sometimes with onions) to allow the flavors to fully bloom. Next, the pork is thinly layered on a spit and trimmed for slow cooking and finally, pineapple placed at the top of the spit slowly melts, dripping onto the meat. Because pineapple contains bromelain, the meat is sweetened and tenderized. Once ready, the meat is thinly shaved from the spit onto a warm corn tortilla and garnished with minced onion, cilantro and pineapple. In this recipe, I’m bypassing the spit and cooking the marinated meat in a hot skillet with oil. Grilling the meat also works well. The flavors will stay intact.
Achiote paste is made from the seeds of the Annatto tree, indigenous to Mexico and Brazil, where Annatto seeds are used as a natural food dye. Interestingly, most American cheddar gets its orange or yellow color from Annatto seeds (but that’s a whole other story).
Preparing fresh Achiote paste with freshly ground Annatto seeds brings out a subtle flavor; slightly floral and peppery, with hints of nutmeg. You may prepare your own achiote paste or purchase a ready made version. However, if making your own, be sure to get a good spice grinder. The seeds are very hard and a typical blender or food processor won’t break them down into a powder. Adding a touch of vinegar preserves the flavor when kept for a long time in the refrigerator.
Sour/Bitter Orange or Naranja Agria
Naranja Agria is a sour orange used in this recipe to make the both the achiote paste and the marinade for Tacos al Pastor. Bitter orange marinade is available in most Latin grocery markets or by following this link. Alternatively, substitute by mixing two parts regular orange juice to one part lime and one part lemon to approximate the same flavor.
While mastering my recipe for Super Bowl Chili, I discovered that grinding a variety of chilies offered a wonderfully complex flavor. To keep things simple however, you can stick with one type of chili like guajillo, pasilla or ancho.
When ordering a taco in Mexico, there are a myriad of salsas and pickled fruit/vegetables to add in addition to the taco. One of the simplest garnish is finely minced onion and cilantro. On this blog are recipes for Houston style green sauce and Chile Verde Salsa. Adobo Sauce is also great, spooned on top before a bite. Just be careful when marinating the pork and do not cross contaminate using the same utensil to mix the pork and adobo sauce.
Cold Dos Equis Amber, Pacifico or your favorite Pilsner.
Tacos al Pastor
- chef knife
- comal or iron pan
- cutting board
- storage container with lid or plastic wrap for marinating
- heavy fry pan for cooking
Red Adobo Sauce
- 2 large/whole ancho chili with seeds and stems removed-dry roasted
- 3-4 whole arbol chili, with seeds and stems removed-dry roasted
- 4 whole cascabel, chili with seeds and stems removed-dry roasted
- 1 whole guajillo, chili with seeds and stems removed-dry roasted
- 2 whole morita, chili with seeds and stems removed-dry roasted
- 1 whole pasilla, chili with seeds and stemmed removed-dry roasted
- 1 whole white onion, diced
- 4 whole tomato, roma or vine ripened, roughly chopped
- 6 large clove garlic, roughly chopped
- ⅓ cup bitter orange juice
- ¼ cup oil, avocado or any neutral oil
- 2 tbsp achiote paste, homemade or store bought
- ¼ tsp oregano-preferably Mexican, stems removed and chopped
- ¼ tsp cumin, roasted whole or ground
- ⅛ tsp cinnamon or canela
- ⅛ tsp clove, ground
- 1 tbsp salt
- 1 5lbs pork shoulder, boneless sliced thin
- 1 cup Red Adobo Sauce
- 1 whole onions, sliced very thin (optional)
- 1 whole pineapple, fresh, skinned cored and peeled cut into bite sized chunks
- 2 tbsp butter, unsalted good quality
- ⅛ tsp salt
Suggested Extra Garnish (any or all)
- ½ cup Houston style Green Sauce recipe in this blog
- ½ cup Mexican style Chili Verde recipe in this blog
- ½ cup Red Adobo Sauce (recipe above) recipe in this blog
- ½ cup finely minced onion and cilantro
- ½ cup Molcajete Guacamole recipe in this blog
- ½ cup Chile Morita Salsa
- ½ cup Queso Fresco, crumbled (Otherwise known as Farmer's Cheese or Fresh Cheese available in most grocery stores)
- ½ cup Chicharrón en Salsa Roja
- ½ cup Mexican style pickle red onions recipe in this blog
- ½ cup thinly sliced radish
To make red adobo sauce
- Dry roast the chilies (doing only one type) of chili at a time, in a pan over high heat until just fragrant-not burned. Repeat the process until all of the chilies have been roasted.
- Add the roasted chilies to the container of a blender. Then add onion, chopped tomato, garlic, bitter orange juice, oil, achiote paste, oregano, ground cumin, ground cinnamon, ground clove and salt. Process starting on low and gradually increase the speed until a thick, well blended sauce forms. Remove from the blender and store in the refrigerator until needed.
Slicing and marinating the pork shoulder/butt
- It's easiest to use a boneless pork shoulder/butt, but if necessary, cut around the bone and slice the pork very thin. Remove any excess fat and discard.
- Gather the pork in a container for marinating. Add enough red adobo sauce to completely cover the sliced pork. Using your hands with a disposable kitchen glove, mix the red adobo sauce thoroughly with the sliced pork. Cover with a tight fitting lid or plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight or at least 8 hours.
Cooking the pineapple
- Remove the skin and core a fresh pineapple. Slice the pineapple in half, then half again, and half the quarters. Slice the remaining pieces into bite sized chunks. If you are using canned diced pineapple, you are ready to cook as is.
- Heat butter in a pan over medium high heat. Once the butter has melted, add the pineapple chunks and cook them until nicely charred. Reserve and keep warm.
Cooking the pork
- Heat a heavy pan over medium-high heat for a couple of minutes. Add a tablespoon or more of oil as needed to the fry pan. Once the oil is hot and shimmering, but not smoking, add a few slices of the marinated pork. Don't overcrowd the pan. Cook on one side until just charred. Remove the cooked pork from the skillet and reserve in a dish until all the pork has been cooked off. Keep warm and reserve.
To assemble the tacos
- Cut limes and/or dice onion and cilantro for topping. Crumble the Queso Fresco if need be. Assemble all of the extra garnish as you desire.
- Warm the tortillas. Add enough pork to the tortillas to make a small taco without over-filling. Add crumbled Queso Fresco, minced onion/cilantro and charred pineapple and serve with your favorite garnish.