Kick off your taco Tuesday night by whipping up tacos al pastor, a very popular street food in Mexico. Its place of origin isn’t actually Mexico, but Lebanon (via Huffington Post). Al pastor is based on shawarma, the Middle Eastern dish of lamb that’s slow-roasted on a vertical spit. When Lebanese immigrants came to Mexico in the 1930s, they added shawarma to tortillas, creating tacos arabé (per Tasting Table). Pork is a favorite meat in Mexico, so Mexican cooks adapted the method for Lebanese shawarma by roasting pork instead of lamb.
Stephanie Rapone of Pantry to Plate is always developing recipes that the busy home cook can manage easily. In her recipe for tacos al pastor, she eliminates the vertical spit and roasts the thinly sliced and tightly packed pork in a loaf pan with pineapple. Rapone then sears the slow-roasted pork in a skillet, giving it a wonderful crispy texture that’s a close simulation to what you’d find in Mexico. This recipe is perfect for a Cinco de Mayo fiesta, but if you love Mexican food just as much as we do, you’ll make this al pastor all year round.
Gather the ingredients for al pastor
"I love al pastor," Rapone says, adding, "because it [has] a great balance of flavors with the chiles and the pineapple." Chipotles in adobo can be pretty much found in most supermarkets in the Hispanic foods section. Ancho chile powder is usually in the spice aisle, but you can order it online as well. One ingredient you may need to search for is annatto powder (or paste). It’s made from the ground-up seeds of the achiote tree and is a spice that’s commonly used in Mexican cooking. Annatto powder adds a bright reddish-orange color, and according to Healthline, it potentially also has several health benefits.
Mexican oregano is easy to find, but don’t substitute it with regular oregano. Not only is Mexican oregano from a different plant altogether, it has a citrusy flavor (per Mexican Please). You’ll also need a 4-to-5-pound boneless pork shoulder (or butt) and other ingredients, including garlic powder, cumin, salt, pepper, white vinegar, pineapple juice, fresh pineapple, canola or vegetable oil, fresh cilantro, a white onion, two limes, an avocado, salsa, and corn tortillas.
Make the marinade, and marinate the sliced pork
Traditionally, the pork for al pastor is spit-roasted first and then sliced very thinly. In Rapone’s recipe, the pork is sliced first into ½-inch slices, using a very sharp knife. It’s a lot easier to slice raw meat if it’s slightly frozen. But, if you’re just taking the roast out of your fridge, that will work, too. Once you’ve sliced the pork, transfer the slices into a large bowl.
Next, you’ll make the marinade, which will take about five seconds. Put the two chipotles and 2 tablespoons of their adobo sauce in the can into a blender or food processor. Add 2 tablespoons of ancho chile powder (or guajillo chile powder), 2 tablespoons of annatto powder (or paste), 1 tablespoon of garlic powder, 1 tablespoon of dried Mexican oregano, 1 tablespoon of cumin, 1 tablespoon each of salt and pepper, ¾ cup of white vinegar, and 1 cup of pineapple juice. Blitz them in the blender or processor for a few seconds until the mixture is a smooth puree.
Pour the marinade over the sliced pork, then toss everything to make sure that all sides of the pork are coated. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least two hours or up to three days.
Slice the fresh pineapple, and layer it in two loaf pans
Peeled and cored pineapple can sometimes be found in the grocery store, but a whole pineapple is always readily available. That spiky Hawaiian beauty can seem daunting at first, but the effort is worth it, because the fruit will be juicy and aromatic. According to Bon Appétit, when choosing a pineapple, select one that has a yellow-gold hue. You can tell how ripe a pineapple is by how yellow it is. (More yellow means riper!)
There are plenty of videos online that demonstrate how to cut a pineapple. Basically, you cut off the top and bottom, cut off the skin, slice out the core, and then slice the fruit. Once you’ve cut the pineapple, line two loaf pans with parchment paper, and place a layer of pineapple on the bottom. The remaining pineapple will be used as a garnish later.
Layer the pork on top of the pineapple, and roast
Once the pork has marinated at least two hours, preheat the oven to 350 F. Layer the meat on top of the pineapple in one direction. "Don’t be afraid to pack the pork in the [loaf] pan tightly," Rapone advises. Put the pans into the preheated oven, and roast for 1 ½ hours, until the pork reaches an internal temperature of 205 to 210 F on an instant-read thermometer. "Make sure to cook [the pork to the right] temperature," Rapone says. "Pork shoulder really needs that extra cooking to get a great texture." Let the pork rest for 30 minutes before moving on to the next step. Alternatively, you can cover the loaf pans with foil and refrigerate them overnight.
Slice the pork, and prepare the toppings for the al pastor
While the pork is resting, it’s time to prepare the garnishes for the tacos al pastor. Dice the white onion and remaining pineapple, and chop the cilantro. You can slice or dice the avocado, and once you’ve done so, squeeze a little lime juice over the avocado, which helps retain its color (via The Spruce Eats). Finally, cut the limes into wedges, which people can squeeze over their finished tacos.
Now, on to the pork! Lift the meat and pineapple out of the loaf pan, and transfer them to a cutting board. Slice the loaf into ¼-inch slices in the opposite direction that you layered the pork in the pan. This is an excellent method for quickly giving you thin, even slices of meat.
Fry the pork until crisp, garnish, and serve tacos al pastor
Heat 2 teaspoons of vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium-high. When you see the oil shimmer, add just enough pork to cover the bottom of the skillet without crowding. Sear the pork until browned and crispy, then transfer to a serving bowl. You’ll probably need to sear the pork in two or three batches, so just repeat these steps, adding more vegetable oil to the skillet.
Heat the corn tortillas by wrapping them in a clean kitchen towel and microwave them for 30 seconds. Serve the al pastor with the tortillas, chopped onion, chopped cilantro, sliced or diced avocado, diced pineapple, green salsa, and lime wedges. Rapone uses traditional Mexican toppings for her al pastor recipe, but you can add your own personal favorites. One of the great things about this recipe is that it freezes well. Rapone created this at-home version "so I could freeze half and have an easy meal in the future."