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Behind a $1.50 Taco, a Deep Well of Expertise

Tacos al pastor | Lesley Tellez
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To slice the juicy, crisp-edged al pastor meat off the roasting spit, Rolando Marcelino Martinez uses a 14-inch knife that he brought with him from Mexico. He sharpens it every day before customers arrive at Tacos Los Guichos, a bustling taquería housed in a trailer near the 110 freeway at West Slauson Avenue.

A new generation of immigrant chefs are taking inspiration from their cultures and re-mixing Mexican food into new and exciting fare. Watch "The Migrant Kitchen" episode, "<a data-cke-saved-href="https://www.kcet.org/shows/the-migrant-kitchen/episodes/alta-california" href="https://www.kcet.org/shows/the-migrant-kitchen/episodes/alta-california">Alta California</a>."
Alta California

The scars of his job sit along his thumbs — faint, squiggly white lines set off against his dark brown skin. He cut himself when he was a novice, more than 15 years and three taquerías ago. Now he’s considered a pastorero, or a taquero devoted exclusively to making tacos al pastor.

“It’s a complicated trade that encompasses knowledge of the kitchen, physics, chemistry, and separately, the soul of a taquero,” says Alejandro Escalante, the Mexico City-based author of “La Tacopedia: Enciclopedia del Taco.” “Taqueros are in a way psychologists or expert salesmen. People come, and they know what each person is looking for.”

Every night, Marcelino’s job has the same complicated set of rules: stack the meat on the spit; trim off the ends so it cooks more evenly; warm the tortillas, keep the cilantro and chopped onion at arm’s reach; sharpen his knife; slice the meat into his outstretched, tortilla-lined hand; monitor the meat so it’s cooked but not burned; and make sure he doesn’t slice off a finger, all while standing in front of a hot gas grill with an open flame.

“The truth is that it’s difficult,” says Marcelino, who grew up in the village of Tamazulapan, Oaxaca. He first learned the taco trade in Guanajuato and eventually stacked trompos, or roasting spits for al pastor, at taquerías in Mexico City’s trendy Condesa neighborhood. “With time, a person learns. But it’s not easy like people would say.”

Tacos al pastor, invented in Mexico City, are among the most popular tacos in Los Angeles, comprising marinated pork filets that have been stacked on a roasting spit and cooked over an open flame. (The spit is called a trompo in Spanish; the pile of meat is called a bola.) Taqueros slice the meat quickly into a warm tortilla and top it with a spray of cilantro and raw onion, salsa, and sometimes pineapple. Many stands in Los Angeles charge around $1 to $1.50 per taco, but the amount belies the expertise that’s actually involved.

A pastorero at Vilsito, a taquería in Mexico City | Ana Tello/Eat Mexico
A pastorero at Vilsito, a taquería in Mexico City | Ana Tello/Eat Mexico

At Los Guichos, which opened in 1992, the pastoreros receive better pay than the taqueros who man the grill, just because the job is more demanding, says owner Mariano Zenteno. (The word “man” is used on purpose — it’s rare to see a woman making al pastor.)

The pastorero must know how to stack the meat for it to cook properly, a task known in Spanish as “armar la bola,” and know how to cut the meat efficiently and quickly, as the bola moves unless you apply the right pressure. If you don’t cut it correctly, you’ll dull the knife, says Poncho Rosas, who worked at Mexico City’s famed Vilsito taquería for four years.

A trompo at Vilsito, a taquería in Mexico City | Ana Tello/Eat Mexico
A trompo at Vilsito, a taquería in Mexico City | Ana Tello/Eat Mexico

The pastorero must turn the spit and monitor the meat constantly, so it doesn’t burn. He must slice it at an exact thinness — chunky al pastor meat is ugly, everyone agrees — and adjust the heat once the bola starts to run low. And the taquero must have customer service skills, too. Marcelino says he often recognizes regular customers and will begin making their taco even before they order it.

At some taquerías that serve al pastor with pineapple, the pastoreros put on a show, sending a chunk of fruit flying through the air and catching it with an outstretched hand or behind their backs.

“It’s a complicated trade that encompasses knowledge of the kitchen, physics, chemistry, and separately, the soul of a taquero,” says Alejandro Escalante, the Mexico City-based author of “La Tacopedia: Enciclopedia del Taco.” “Taqueros are in a way psychologists or expert salesmen. People come, and they know what each person is looking for.”

Tacos al pastor vary across Los Angeles and within Mexico. Not all the marinades are the same — some call for annatto seed, known as achiote in Spanish, and some don’t. Not all contain pineapple. Los Guichos, which mounts and sells an entire 160-pound bola every day and two on the weekends, uses only chiles and spices in its marinade. They don’t use pineapple. 

The tacos al pastor origin story also depends on who you ask. Mexican food experts agree that tacos al pastor are a variation of tacos árabes, a spit-roasted pork taco inspired by the doner kebab-style meat that originated in Turkey. But it’s not clearly documented who started making tacos árabes first. Many point to Lebanese immigrants who arrived in Mexico in the early 20th century after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. In the Mexican state of Puebla, one tacos árabes stand near the Zócalo claims be the original; a Lebanese family started the business in 1933.

Tacos al pastor surfaced in Mexico City around the middle of the century, writes Escalante in his book.  Two taquerías, El Huequito and El Tizoncito, claim to be the creators.

Tacos al pastor at Vilsito, a taquería in Mexico City | Ana Tello/Eat Mexico
Tacos al pastor at Vilsito, a taquería in Mexico City | Ana Tello/Eat Mexico

In the United States, you can now find tacos al pastor across the country, although in some states they’re called tacos de trompo, a Northern Mexican variation.

José R. Ralat, author of the Taco Trail blog and the upcoming book “American Tacos: A History and Guide to the Taco Trail North of the Border,” says he always looks for a symmetrical, even bola when he’s visiting a new taquería.

“You’ll see all these ugly, sloppy, trompos, and that means that the meat is unevenly cooked, it means that you’re going to get patches of over-seasoned or under-seasoned meat. Some parts may be burned. It’s difficult,” Ralat says.

His dream al pastor taco is a mound of thinly sliced pork that’s “crispy on the edges with a little white in the center” and topped with a tomatillo and árbol chile salsa.

“With the heat, the cooling, the tartness of the tomatillo, the crispiness of the pork, and the corn’s manufactured flavor, it’s delicious! It’s a little treat.”

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