The taco el pastor trompo in its natural habitat.
Tacos al pastor, essentially crispy chile pork, are one of the most popular tacos in Mexico City. The funny thing is, they’re Lebanese.
Turns out a sizeable contingent of Lebanese immigrants arrived in Mexico City in the 19th Century. They couldn’t source the spices for their beloved shawarma, and turned to layers of
pork, chiles, annatto and pineapple. As the stack of meat turns before the heat, the edges caramelize and turn crusty. That’s the part that’s shaved off into tacos.
The stack of meat is called a trompo, because it’s shaped like a top, the spinning wonder that narrows to a point at the bottom.
After some months of fruitlessly searching the Internet for a reasonable shawarma machine, I gave up. But a listing on eBay caught my attention: a Sunbeam Carousel Rotisserie. It looked like it might be retrofitted to my purposes, but how can you tell until you take it apart?
I tried to find a place that would sell me a new one, but the appliance has apparently been discontinued. This was a blow to my tabletop al pastor theories, to say the least. If you could use them to make such delightful dishes, how could they possibly go out of production?
I held my nose and started bidding on the devices. Two or three were up for auction on eBay at any one time. I got one for about $30. It wasn’t until the second one arrived that Kathy started giving me the look.
“How am I supposed to get spare parts if the first one breaks down?” I asked her, clearly impressing her with the intellectual underpinnings of my purchase. “These might be the only way tacos el pastor ever takes root in Buffalo. I have to think of the future.”
“I’m thinking of the future too,” she said, “with two of these things on a shelf in the basement.”
Heartened to see that she shared my vision, I set to work.
The basket on the bottom of the spindle needed to go. First, I snipped off the basket, leaving a floor of steel wires. Then I used a piece of cardboard to figure out the size of the platform the meat would rest on. I decided that if I used multiple layers of aluminum foil, the wood disc wouldn’t burn.
It was ready to fire.
Seven pounds of sliced pork butt went into the marinade for 48 hours. When it came time to build the stack, I found that the spindle would keep the slices on the stack, but the evenness of the slices determined how symmetric the stack became.
But once it started cooking, and the smell of pork and cinnamon and pineapple started wafting through the kitchen, there was no mistake. The crazy thing works.
You don’t really get it until you see how the pineapple juice mixes with the pork juice to lay the base for a luscious savory caramel that coats the outer edges of the meat slices, waiting for its moment on a tortilla with some chopped onion and cilantro. I’ve read that the Mexican taco slingers flick little chunks of roasted pineapple from the fruit atop the stack for each taco. Seems like a pretty good idea.
The pork has to be thinner, for maximum crispy area. Next time I’ll get boneless butts and partially freeze them, then cut the meat about a quarter-inch thick. The marinade’s so good, I’ll just grill my al pastor pork on the Weber next time, if I’m not going to the effort of producing thin cutlets.
Don’t bother trying to cut the meat off while the spit stays in the machine. Take advantage of its small size, grab the handle on top, and pull the meat out, resting it on a big plate. Then just shave the meat off the sides and onto the plate. Pop the spit back in to start spinning for the next round.
Also, the electric element in the Sunbeam isn’t up to cooking as fast as those big-boy restaurant rotisseries. That means you’re limited in the rate at which you crispify and trim off the pork for tacos.
But as it turned out, we had the answer to that: Ask a bunch of talented cooks to bring something Mexican. Get a bottle of good tequila and a sack of limes. With that kind of company, waiting for tacos is easy.
Next: The recipes and dishes that made our little corner of Buffalo feel like south of the border.