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What Is an Al Pastor?

By P.M. Willers
Updated May 17, 2024
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Al pastor is a popular style of tacos most commonly found in Mexico City and Cuernavaca, though they may be found elsewhere around Mexico as well. In the United States, tacos al pastor are much harder to find, although they are becoming more common in U.S. cities with large Mexican populations. The manner of cooking and serving these tacos is unique in that the meat is cooked on a spit and then shaved or cut from it at the point of serving. Spit-style cooking of taco meat is not commonly found outside of Mexico, and the counter-intuitiveness of placing pineapple atop a taco makes it the most elusive taco, causing many to confuse it with similar yet distinct dishes.

The cooking method using a spit is similar to the way gyro or shawarma is prepared. It is believed that the al pastor style was developed due to influence from Lebanese immigrants to Mexico. Over time, the method of preparing meat has morphed from something similar to Lebanese shawarma into the style that can be found today in taco restaurants all over central Mexico.

Unlike shawarma meat, which is normally lamb, al pastor meat is pork marinated in a mixture made up of vinegar, a variety of chilies, and other herbs and spices. The pork is allowed to marinate anywhere from a couple of hours to a couple of days, and is then folded onto the vertical spit and cooked using a gas flame. There is a set recipe for creating the marinade for this meat, and many restaurants guard their recipe as an important secret.

Tacos al pastor is normally served with a thin slice of pineapple, along with cilantro, onions, and salsa. The whole pineapple normally rests on top of the meat while it is cooking on the spit, and is then allowed to release bromelain, an enzyme pineapple contains which tenderizes the meat by breaking down its proteins. When the dish is served, a slice of pineapple is sliced and placed on the taco, where it provides a sweet and tangy addition to the flavor profile.

This dish should not be confused with adobada, which means 'marinated' in Spanish. The meat in adobada tacos is often marinated with a recipe similar to that used for the meat. Adobada tacos are usually made with pork meat, but the meat is not cooked on a spit nor are the tacos dressed with pineapple slices. These last two traits identify authentic tacos al pastor.

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