Tacos al Pastor

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It all started when I was watching Wes Avila on The Chef Show, making tacos al pastor. If you haven’t heard of my fascination with this show, I highly recommend it. I’ve mentioned in it my spicy pork post – a Roy Choi recipe. He and Jon Favreau host The Chef Show, and in each episode they visit with a chef or someone who loves food and cooking. There’s really no rhyme or reason to the show, which is maybe why I like it. You’re basically a fly on the wall!

Wes Avila, author of Guerilla Tacos, from which I made Chile Colorado, discusses in his episode when the hosts visit him at his restaurant of the same name, how tacos al pastor developed from the influx of Lebanese into Mexico. If you’ve ever had donor kebab, you’ll know that the process of stacking the meat on vertical spits, grilling, and then slicing it off and laying in flatbread or tortillas is the same. The name of the conical shape of the meat is called a trompo.

Below left is a trompo that rotates and cooks vertically in a commercial grill. Notice the pineapple on top! Sometimes the meat is only seasoned with paprika; I’ve figured out that trompo refers to the cone shape rather than a specific recipe. Below right is a vertical skewer I found on Amazon, also known as a Brazilian Gojo barbecue skewer.

When commercially grilled, donor kabob meat is thinly sliced in a vertical direction, but the spit continues to rotate so the meat continues to crisp up on the outside. This is an important aspect to tacos al pastor as well.

Since I’m making the meat in our outdoor charcoal grill, I’m not able to do this as with a commercial rotating grill. However, the meat can be sliced off, and then crisped up later in a little lard on a griddle or plancha before serving. We also made sure to rotate the vertical grill. The following photo is from the Serious Eats recipe page.

Oddly enough, even though Chef Avila makes tacos al pastor in the show, and his cookbook is all taco recipes, there is no recipe for tacos al pastor in his book, so I found one online at Serious Eats by J. Kenji López-Alt. There seem to be many options possible, but I stuck to this recipe because it seemed to contain the most common ingredients.

Tacos al pastor are really a process. Ideally you need 2-3 days to make them. First there is a marination step, then the cooking, then an important chilling step. In his recipe which follows, J. Kenji López-Alt uses a loaf pan to create the compressed and cohesive pork mixture, instead of a vertical grill. This is certainly a reasonable back-up plan, but I just had to try out my spit!

In my photos, you can see the slices of layered pork, solidified together, yet still tender. It’s critical that the pork doesn’t become pulled pork; that’s a very different texture. I could have pulled apart the pork layers, but as an ex-geologist, I like seeing layers!!!

Tacos  Al  Pastor
by J. Kenji López-Alt, updated Jul. 11, 2021
for Serious Eats

For the Pork:
2 whole ancho chiles, seeds and stems removed
2 whole pasilla or guajillo chiles, seeds and stems removed
1/2 cup homemade or store-bought low-sodium chicken stock
2 teaspoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano
1 teaspoon dried ground cumin seed
1 tablespoon achiote powder or paste
1 chipotle chile packed in adobo sauce, plus 2 teaspoons sauce
1/4 cup distilled white vinegar (I used rice vinegar)
3 whole cloves garlic
2 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 teaspoons sugar
2 pounds boneless blade-end loin or sirloin pork roast (I used 3 pounds pork shoulder, thinly sliced)
8 ounces (1/2 pound) sliced bacon (I used 1 1/2 pounds pork belly, sliced)

To Finish and Serve:
1 small pineapple, peeled, cored, and cut into quarters lengthwise
32 to 48 corn tortillas, heated and kept warm
1 medium white onion, finely diced (about 1 cup)
1/2 cup finely minced fresh cilantro leaves and tender stems
1 cup basic salsa verde or your favorite salsa (I served a tomato salsa)
3 to 4 limes, cut into 8 wedges each for serving

Place chiles in a large saucepan over medium high heat and cook, turning chiles occasionally, until puffed, pliable, lightly browned in spots, and very aromatic, about 5 minutes. Add chicken stock (it should boil immediately), then pour contents of pan into a small bowl. Cover loosely and set aside.

Wipe out saucepan, add oil, and return to medium-high heat until oil is shimmering. Add cumin, oregano, and achiote and cook, stirring frequently, until aromatic but not browned, about 30 seconds. Add chipotle chiles and sauce and cook until aromatic, about 30 seconds longer. Add vinegar, salt, and sugar and remove from heat.

Scrape contents of saucepan into a blender along with garlic and chiles with their soaking liquid. Blend on high speed until completely smooth, about 1 minute, scraping down sides as necessary. Set sauce aside to cool slightly.

Add marinade to bowl of pork and pork belly slices, and toss with hands until every piece of meat is evenly coated in marinade.

If you’re making the loaf: Line the bottom of a disposable aluminum loaf pan with bacon. Add a layer of thin-sliced marinated meat. Continue layering in bacon and meat until all the meat is used up. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 4 hours and up to 36.

I used the vertical Gojo, so I began laying slices of pork on the base and working upwards. Top with a pineapple chunk or slice.

To cook outdoors: Light half a chimney of charcoal and allow to preheat until coals are mostly covered in gray ash. Spread out under one half of coal grate, and place cooking grate on top. Alternatively, set one set of burners on a gas grill to low and leave the remaining burners off. Unwrap aluminum loaf pan and place directly over cooler side of grill, placing a drip pan underneath if desired. Cover grill and cook until loaf registers 180 to 190°F in the center, about 4 hours, adding more coals to grill or adjusting burners as necessary to maintain an air temperature of around 275°F for the duration of cooking. Remove from grill, allow to cool slightly, cover with aluminum foil, and refrigerate for at least 2 hours and up to overnight.

What I have learned from this recipe, is that the marinated pork slices cook low and slow for the perfect texture, with an ending temperature of 180 – 190 degrees. That is why a digital meat thermometer is necessary for this type of cooking.

For tacos al pastor, the meat has to cook beyond an internal temperature of 170 degrees, because that is when the connective tissue of the pork breaks down and the meat coagulates, basically forming a cone-shaped loaf. Also important is that the ambient temperature in the grill doesn’t go over 300 degrees, and in fact, when cooked in an oven, the oven setting is 275 degrees.

For the 4 1/2 pounds of meat, it took exactly 5 hours of cooking, using a whole 25-pound bag of charcoal briquettes. My pork browned a lot on the outside, even though we followed the cooking directions, but it was still tasty, tender, and not burnt.

I roasted chunks of fresh pineapple tossed in a little olive oil with cumin and salt until there was some caramelization.

For my crema, I blended 16 ounces sour cream with one ripe avocado, 2 tablespoons pineapple juice, 1 tablespoon of lime juice, a little oregano and a little salt.

I also toasted the tortillas directly on my stove for more flavor and color.

These taco and all of the accompanying goodies are perfect for company!

My only regret is that I didn’t make more marinade, which is dumb because I used 2 more pounds of meat than directed in this recipe.

There is so much to making tacos al pastor, I’ve discovered, that I encourage you to check out the Serious Eats recipe by J. Kenji López-Alt. There are so many important details regarding slicing the pork, cooking it, and more, that I couldn’t add to this post.

Sweet and Spicy Sauce

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It all started when I ordered some barbecue and simmering sauces from Williams-Sonoma, in anticipation of surgeries on both hands this year. Typically I make everything from scratch, but I was unable to do much in the kitchen for about 4 months total.

One of the sauces I purchased was Roy Choi’s Sweet and Spicy sauce. It was to die for, and I’m not typically enamored by prepared sauces. They’re typically too sweet for me.

However, this sauce had the perfect balance, but when I wanted to buy more, they were sold out. So then I googled Roy Choi, and bought one of his cookbooks, L. A. Son, published in 2013, and discovered the exact sauce in his cookbook!

It had to be the same sauce because of the main components, described as “a vibrant mix of sweet chile sauce, sesame, garlic and citrus.“

I especially loved what was written by Mr. Choi regarding this recipe: “I’ve always loved the sauces in life more than the food – maybe that’s why I cook the way I do.” He suggests drowning your chicken or shrimp in this sauce.

After my first surgery, my husband grilled drumsticks for me, because they were something I could eat with one hand, and I seriously drowned them in the jarred sweet and spicy sauce. Until it was all gone, that is. So when I made this sauce from scratch, I again cooked up some chicken legs.

The fun thing about making this recipe is that I ordered and used fresh galangal for the first time. Yay Amazon!

What is interesting about this sauce is that it’s blended raw.

The cookbook reminds me so much of Guerilla Tacos author, Wesley Avila, who’s a tattooed Mexican American, and Roy Choi is a tattooed Korean American. Both books contain the best bittersweet and hysterically funny stories of their rise to success. Both live in Los Angeles, California, and have had food taco trucks!

That’s So Sweet

(that what Roy call this sauce!)
Makes about 4 cups

1 – 25 ounce bottle Mae Ploy Sweet Chili Sauce
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons roasted sesame seeds
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 Serrano chiles, chopped, seeds and all
5 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon Sriracha
3/4 white or yellow onion, chopped
1/2 cup fresh lime juice
1/3 cup fresh orange juice
2/3 cup fresh Thai basil leaves (I used regular basil)
2/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro
6 garlic cloves, peeled
2/3 dried Anaheim chile, chopped
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons chopped peeled ginger
2/3 cup chopped scallions
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons kochukaru (gochugaru)
2/3 cup natural rice vinegar
1 teaspoon peeled galangal

Combine all of the ingredients in a blender.

Blend everything until it’s all smooth.

Use liberally on whatever you got cooking for dinner – chicken, shrimp, everything – and pack the rest in Tupperware. It’ll store in the fridge for 2 weeks.

I actually strained the sauce first because I don’t like biting down on chile pepper seeds.

And for old time’s sake, I tried the sauce with drumsticks.

And the verdict? Absolutely wonderful. It has to be the same sauce. The flavor was outstanding – sweet and spicy.

When I first removed the lid from the blender jar, my nose was burning from the chile peppers. So I covered it and refrigerated the sauce for 24 hours. The color actually deepened, and I’m not sure if the flavors mellowed or not, since I didn’t taste it right away. But it’s so good. I’ll be making this again for a mixed grill dinner!

And seriously, if you’re fascinating with chefs’ biographies, as well as great recipes, read Roy Choi’s and Wesley Avila’s books. For an example, Roy Choi ended up externing with Eric Ripert – by accident!