Tacos al pastor, called al pastor tacos in Spanish, are arguably the most famous tacos in Mexico City. Local taquerias fight for the title of the best al pastor tacos. The length of the line or the number of people at a taco stall is a good indication of how good the tacos are. These days almost every taqueria in the country serves their own version. Everyone has their own personal claim to the best ones in town—al pastor tacos are a cult taco in Mexican culture.
Why is It Called al Pastor?
Tacos al pastor means “shepherd-style tacos.” The influence comes from Lebanese immigrants to Mexico, who brought the shawarma, thinly sliced meat stacked and roasted on a slowly turning vertical spit roast. Shawarma is traditionally prepared with lamb, hence the shepherd reference. Tacos al pastor are prepared with foundational Mexican ingredients, such as chiles, achiote paste, and pork.
The Traditional Tacos al Pastor
The meat for tacos al pastor is thinly pounded pork steaks tightly stacked in a vertical spit roast with a whole peeled pineapple placed at the top. The spit rotates as the pork and pineapple slowly cook until deliciously charred around the edges.
Skillful taqueros are in charge of slicing the meat and pineapple with a very sharp knife, landing them on top of warm corn tortillas. In one order you typically get four or five small tacos with a bit of finely chopped cilantro and white onion. It’s so perfect that my mouth waters just thinking about it.
Easy Homemade Tacos al Pastor
Now when it comes to preparing these tasty tacos at home, there may be some fiddly ways, like skewering pork and pineapple and grilling them over charcoal for hours, or if you have your own spit roast at home, that can take a long time too. I recommend this quick and easy version—a fast stovetop sear followed by 20 minutes in the oven. I promise it has all the flavors with a lot less effort. You won’t even need any special equipment.
The Best Cut of Pork for Tacos al Pastor
Deboned pork shoulder is the best cut for tacos al pastor and if you get your butcher to cut it into thin steaks half the work done is done. My local grocery store carries pork shoulder steaks. Otherwise, slice the pork into 1/2-inch steaks before you marinade it.
The Adobada Marinade
The pork steaks are marinated in an adobada. This marinade is what gives the meat the distinctive red color and classic al pastor flavor. It’s prepared with a mix of Mexican dried chiles, such as guajillo, ancho, pasilla, mulato, or cascabel. The chiles are first toasted to release their aroma and then soaked in hot water to make then easy to blend into a paste.
The rehydrated chiles are blended with aromatics, spices, pineapple, and achiote paste. The result is a bright brick-red marinade that is fruity, earthy, and with deep flavors of the chiles.
Always Corn Tortillas
Tacos al pastor are always served over warm corn tortillas. When the al pastor pork is served in flour tortillas with cheese, the tacos are called gringas.
My Tips for Making Tacos al Pastor
- Concentrate your energy on the marinade. Want the characteristic flavors of a classic al pastor? Use authentic ingredients, like the Mexican dried chiles and achiote paste, a red paste used to add color and flavor in Central American cuisines. It’s made with annato seeds, garlic, spices, and vinegar. Mexican or Latin American grocery stores carry them.
- Marinate the pork in the fridge overnight. The flavors and color will permeate into the pork, and the pineapple in the marinade will help tenderize the meat. Don’t have the time? At least 3 hours is ideal.
- Sear the marinated pork until golden brown, lightly charred, and cooked through. You want those charred edges around the pork, so cook them in batches without overlapping.
- Allow the pork to rest for a few minutes before slicing it.
Roasted pineapple, finely chopped white onion and cilantro, and a good squeeze of lime are the perfect garnishes for tacos al pastor. My roasted pineapples are cut into small triangles and seasoned with ground ancho or guajillo chiles for extra flavor.