If Mexico City, and by extension Mexico, were to have an iconic taco, it would be the taco al pastor. This bantam assembly of marinated pork shaved from a trompo (a vertical rotisserie) on a corn tortilla with pineapple, cilantro, onions and salsa is the object of lust for many taco enthusiasts. Spikes of heat, patches of char, citrus pep here and there: What’s not to like? It’s also considered the most authentic of tacos but it is not the first taco and was not adapted from some ancient Aztec recipe. Rather, the taco al pastor appeared in the capital in the mid-20th century, a product of native and immigrant culinary mash-up. It’s also not the only style of taco with meat from a vertical spit. It’s not even the first such dish in Mexico—several of which, including tacos al pastor, are outlined below.
Four hundred years after the Spanish came ashore on the Mexican mainland, initiating the birth of what would become Mexican food with pork, lard, beef and other comestibles, another group of non-indigenous peoples transformed Mexican food. This mass of people, immigrants from the Middle East, specifically Lebanon and Iran, into the city and state of Puebla, brought with them shawarma, lamb cooked on a vertical rotisserie, and their own flatbread, pita. The Mexican adaptation of shawarma popped up in the 1930s at Tacos Árabes Bagdad and Antigua Taqueria La Oriental, but took the form of pork (itself a Spanish import) served on a small pita-like tortilla called pan árabe.
As of yet, I have not been able to find traditional tacos árabes in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. However, they are served else in the United States. One such business is the Tacos Árabes truck in Los Angeles.
Similarly marinated meat served in a taco has also been called a taco árabe, according to Alejandro Escalante in La Tacopedia.
Tacos al Pastor
When tacos árabes made the jump to the capital in the 1950s they transformed again and took on the name tacos al pastor. They were first served at El Huequito and El Tizoncito, and have since become the taco most associated with Mexico City. The name tacos al pastor, meaning shepherd-style tacos, refers to the spit even though it is upright. The protein often used is adobo-seasoned pork (shoulder, butt), although beef can be interspersed between the layers of pork. As mentioned above, al pastor meat spinning on a trompo is popularly capped with pineapple and rests on an onion. The theory is the citrus juices run down the pork and the onion’s aroma wafts up. Onion perfume has a nice ring to it.
If the corn tortilla is replaced with a flour tortilla and cheese is added to the mix, what you’ve got is a gringa, or white woman’s taco. El Fogoncito in Mexico City claims to be the birthplace of the gringa taco. The story goes that in the 1970s two American women frequently asked El Fogoncito’s taqueros for tacos al pastor in that manner and eventually the kitchen the option on the official menu.
Marinated pork—or any protein—grilled or cooked on a flattop is not al pastor unless it is cooked on a spit. The spit need not be a vertical rotisserie, though. In northern Mexico and along the U.S.-Mexico border kid goat cooked on a horizontal spit over mesquite or mesquite coals is called cabrito al pastor. The McAllen, Texas, location of Mexico-based El Pastor Grill specializes in this style. And it’s a gamey delight.
True tacos al pastor are a rarity in Dallas-Fort Worth. Taqueros are fond of noting that health regulations, least among them the requirement that the meat be finished off on a griddle, make use of a trompo nearly impossible. Restaurants attempting to pass off meat, shrimp, fish or any food as al pastor are stating that the food has been seasoned in a tacos al pastor-style marinade. If you see al pastor (or a gringa) on a menu, ask if the meat has been cooked on a trompo. The waitress or taquero won’t likely lie to you, but it wouldn’t hurt to try to get a peek into the kitchen. If a trompo hasn’t been utilized, for chrissakes don’t order the al pastor. North Texas recommendations include El Tizoncito (not related to the Mexico City original), Urban Taco, El Come Taco and Leo & Churro Taqueria.
Tacos de Adobada
This Tijuana specialty name translates to marinated tacos, and could, if you want to be literal and cheat refer to any filling seasoned with adobo. Unlike tacos de trompo, which we’ll get to below, “tacos de adobada” is more of a regional term than a different preparation using the same cooking implement. Stateside, tacos de adobada can be found at a few taquerias. Los Tacos No. 1 in New York City is one such joint.
Tacos de Trompo
Now we get to my personal favorite and the style taco enthusiasts are likely to encounter in DFW: tacos de trompo. Hailing from Monterrey, Nuevo León, in northern Mexico, a taco de trompo is pork seasoned with little more than smoked paprika served on corn tortillas. This particular marinade gives the meat a smokey, slightly spicier flavor.
However, unlike other trompo styles, tacos de trompo are finished on a griddle. The taquero slices the pork from the trompo onto a disc of corrugated cardboard and drops the meat onto corn tortillas already heating on the well-oiled griddle. After a minute or two, the open-faced taco is flipped pork-side down and crisped up with the meat adhering a bit to the tortilla before being served at places like Fito’s Tacos de Trompo #2 and Mi Tierrita.Some Dallas taquerias list trompo on their menus but are actually offering tacos al pastor. The reason, oddly enough, is that while the taqueros and their chile-based marinades hail from Mexico City, the population of immigrants from DF is miniscule compared to the Mexican population from Monterrey in Dallas. So, the businesses are pitching their fare toward the larger group, not the Anglos who swoop in like buzzards on any spot serving tacos al pastor. Case in point is Bachman Tacos & Grill, which claims to offer tacos de trompo for 99 cents but offers neither. Nearby Leo & Churro Taqueria also advertises 99-cent tacos de trompo. While the tacos are 99-cent, they are actually tacos al pastor ringed with char and measured in its chile and citrus components.
As for the history of when tacos de trompo were first served in Monterrey, it’s sketchy. The books and reference sources I have read tend to leave out the style. One exception is the Diccionario Enciclopedico de la Gastronomia Mexicana by Ricardo Muñoz Zurita. Even then, the author gives tacos de trompo one sentence lumped in with tacos al pastor. Taqueros I’ve interviewed regarding the style aren’t confident enough about tacos de trompos’ origins to give definitive answers. But keeping mind that they are descended from tacos al pastor, the northern preparation is doubtfully more than 50 years old. It is likely that tacos de trompo came to prominence in the 1980s and ’90s, when beef barbacoa moved beyond a Sunday ritual to a daily offering alongside taqueria culture’s popularity surge in Monterrey, as Domingo García Garza finds in his exploration of the taco’s transformation into a national dish. What’s more, taqueros interviewed by García explain that tacos de trompo came to Monterrey in the late 1960s and were called tacos griego (from gyro and Greek) and tacos Doneraki (from doner kebab and Doner Iraki), their Middle Eastern provenance front and center. Regardless of tacos de trompos’ backstory, what is true is the exquisiteness of a plate of shimmering tacos de trompo laced with cilantro and onion and finished off with rails of salsa de chile chipotle so hot even your ears sweat.