At Mexico City’s sidewalk stands, crisp-edged pork topped with a charred pineapple rotates on vertical spits. The fiery-red meat and fruit both wait to be sheared off and stuffed into warm tortillas. The result—tacos al pastor—has become one of Mexico’s most delicious exports, found on taqueria menus everywhere.
These “shepherd’s tacos” have an unexpected origin: They came from Lebanon, where spit-roasted meat is rubbed with cumin, cloves, sumac and more to make shawarma, one of the most popular street foods in the Middle East.
In the late 1800s, Lebanese migrants started coming to Mexico, bringing with them vertical spits for roasting lamb shawarma. Not finding much lamb, cooks switched to pork, sandwiching the meat in tortillas rather than flatbread. By the 1960s, the second generation of Lebanese-Mexicans incorporated pineapple and smoked chilies.
Today, the pork for tacos al pastor is flavored with a blend of guajillo, ancho and chipotle chilies; allspice, cumin, cloves and oregano; and orange or pineapple juice, for deep fruity flavor.
The balance of sweet and heat in the tacos appealed to us. And though they’re slow-roasted in Mexico, we knew they had potential to be quick.
Vertical spit-roasting, of course, is hardly practical for home cooking. So we adapted, switching to the moderate heat of the grill. Traditional pork shoulder would require long cooking; tenderloin is better suited to weeknight grilling.
For seasoning, we pureed a couple slices of pineapple with spices, chipotle chilies and their adobo. We brushed more pineapple slices with oil, then charred them for a sweet-smoky salsa.
Sliced into strips, tossed with the reserved pineapple puree and served with the simple salsa on warm corn tortillas, the pork in our tacos al pastor delivered authentic flavor, sans spit-roasting.