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.
Make Tonight Taco Night
Tacos al Pastor
For the marinade
3 cups water
4 dried cascabel or guajillo chiles, stemmed and deseeded
2 dried ancho chiles, stemmed and deseeded
1 dried pasilla chile, stemmed and deseeded
1 large ripe pineapple
3 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon achiote paste
1 tablespoon Mexican oregano
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1/3 cup apple cider vinegar
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons orange juice
1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more for cooking the pork
For the tacos
3 pounds (1.4 kilograms) pork shoulder steaks
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 tablespoon ground ancho or guajillo chiles
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 medium white onion, finely diced
1 small bunch cilantro, finely chopped
3 limes, cut into wedges
4 tortilla corn tortillas
Rehydrate the chiles:
In a kettle or small saucepan, boil 3 cups water.
Meanwhile, heat a large non-stick pan over medium heat. Add the cascabel, ancho, and pasilla chiles, and toast for about 2 minutes on each side until aromatic and slightly softened. Carefully pour the boiled water over the chiles right in the pan and place a large plate on top to make sure the chiles are completely submerged. Let them soak for 20 minutes, until they turn soft.
Prepare the pineapple:
Wash the outside of your pineapple with running water. Place the pineapple on a large cutting board. Use a sharp chef’s knife to slice the crown- and root-end off and discard them. Stand the pineapple upright on its flat base so that it doesn’t roll around. Starting from the top, slice off the skin and discard it.
With the pineapple still upright, cut off the edible part, working around the core. Discard the core.
Cut about one third of the pineapple into large chunks. You’ll add these to the marinade.
Cut the remaining pineapple into about 2 x 1/2-inch pieces. Place these in a bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate until ready to use. When you’re ready to serve the tacos, you’ll roast these.
Make the adobada marinade:
In a blender, transfer the rehydrated chiles—discard the soaking water—and add the pineapple chunks, garlic, achiote paste, oregano, cumin, black peppercorns, vinegar, olive oil, orange juice, and salt. Blend until very smooth.
Marinate the pork:
In a large bowl, add the pork shoulder steaks and pour the adobada marinade on top. Use your hands to fully coat the meat with the marinade. Wash your hands and cover the bowl with plastic wrap. Let it marinate in the fridge for at least 3 hours or up to overnight.
Preheat the oven to 400°F.
Sear the pork:
Set a large pan with 1 tablespoon olive oil over high heat. You will sear the pork in batches. Once the pan is hot, place 3 steaks in the pan, making sure they don’t overlap. Sprinkle a pinch of salt over each steak.
Sear for 2 minutes per side until golden brown and lightly charred. Transfer the meat onto a large baking dish. Sear the remaining pork.
Bake the pork:
Pour the adobada marinade used to marinate the pork on top of the seared pork. Cover the baking dish with foil and bake for 20 minutes, until the pork is cooked through. Set it aside to rest while you roast the pineapple.
Roast the pineapple:
Transfer the reserved pineapple onto a baking sheet and spread them out into an even layer. Drizzle on 1 tablespoon olive oil and sprinkle with ground ancho chiles and salt. Roast for 15 minutes until the edges are lightly charred.
Meanwhile, warm the tortillas:
Warm up your corn tortillas over a hot comal or in a pan in batches, and keep them warm in a tortillero or by wrapping them in a clean tea towel.
Slice the pork:
Slice the pork thinly with a very sharp knife and place it on a serving platter. Scrape the marinade on top of the sliced pork.
Assemble the tacos:
Bring the sliced pork, roasted pineapples, warm tortillas, chopped onions, cilantro, and lime wedges to the table so that everyone can build their own tacos. For the perfect al pastor taco, add a spoonful of pork into a tortilla, top with a slice or two of pineapple, garnish with onions and cilantro, and then a generous squeeze a lime. Enjoy!
Leftover pork can refrigerate tightly covered for up to 3 days. To reheat, I simply transfer it into a baking dish, cover with foil, and reheat in a 400°F oven for 15 to 20 minutes.
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|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Servings: 5 to 6|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 48g||62%|
|Saturated Fat 13g||65%|
|Total Carbohydrate 54g||20%|
|Dietary Fiber 9g||33%|
|Total Sugars 8g|
|Vitamin C 50mg||248%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|