Columbus stumbled upon the new world while looking for a new route to Asia.
Newton came to understand gravity, the legend goes, after he decided to nap under an apple tree.
And my husband and I discovered the birthplace of tacos al pastor while looking for a coffee shop in Mexico City.
OK, lumping the last one with the first two is a stretch. Though our “discovery” WAS a bit like Columbus’, in that plenty of people already knew about El Tizoncito, a pleasant street-corner taqueria in Mexico City’s Condesa neighborhood; it was only news to us.
First, a little background on why this was such an epiphany.
Tacos al pastor are among the simple glories of Mexican cuisine. The name means “shepherd style” but there is no lamb or goat involved, only pork. The meat is sliced thin and marinated in chiles and achiote, giving it an orange cast and a tangy but not overwhelmingly spicy flavor. And then–the crucial step–the marinated pork slices are impaled on a spit (known as a trompo, Spanish for a spinning top) and roasted in front of a vertical broiler, similar to those used for shawarma and gyros. Traditionally the spit is topped by a peeled pineapple, so its juices will seep down along with the pork juice and fat, flavoring and tenderizing the meat as the whole thing cooks.
A grill tender shaves the meat off of the spit, a little at a time, producing shreds of tender, savory meat with crisp, slightly burned edges. Most often it’s served up on a fresh corn tortilla, not much bigger than the palm of your hand, and topped with a few essentials: Chopped raw onion, fresh cilantro, a healthy sliver of pineapple, maybe a squeeze of a tiny Mexican lime, maybe a dribble of salsa.
One of these beauties is nothing more than a light snack. In fact, tacos al pastor are a good reason to learn to count to 10 in Spanish. For ordering. Even higher, if you’re hungry.
Taquerias serving al pastor are found all over Mexico, and in the capital city they’re ubiquitous, the ultimate purveyors of street food. The spits are positioned to be visible from the street, assuring hungry passers-by that these tacos are prepared the old-fashioned way, not sizzled on a grill; in the city center, spits of al pastor meat the size of steamer trunks are proudly displayed.
So who thought up all this deliciousness?
The story starts with Lebanese immigrants who brought shawarma to Mexico early in the 20th century. In the Mexican state of Puebla they were made of lamb and known as “tacos arabes.” They were more lightly seasoned than al pastor and were served on flour tortillas. Eventually the lamb was swapped for pork, more seasoning was added, and tacos al pastor were born.
With all of that history, El Tizoncito’s claim to being the birthplace of al pastor might seem a bit thin, but here goes. The restaurant’s web site says its founder, Concepcion Cervantes, set up shop on Calle Campeche in 1966 and devised an original recipe for tacos al pastor.
Was she the first? Fifty-plus years later, who cares? Her successors do a bang-up job on tacos al pastor.
My husband and I stumbled on El Tizoncito (a tizon is a half-burned stick or log) one morning while strolling down Calle Campeche looking for a coffee shop (to start a food tour, naturally) a couple of blocks east. Grimy metal shutters covered the entrances at that hour, but we were intrigued and made a mental note to return.
That came about on a sunny, mild Saturday afternoon when Condesa’s many open-air bars and restaurants were packed. We managed to grab a table, and an efficient server promptly rewarded us with a tower of small cups of salsa and other toppings, plus a few tortilla chips, to hold us until the tacos and beer arrived.
How many tacos? I started with three and my husband with four. But that’s not where it ended. Suffice it to say we ended up in double digits. We were sitting a few feet from the sword-wielding chef as he whittled down the pineapple and pork and served up each taco on a small square of paper.
Not historic, perhaps, but fresh, authentic and delicious.
El Tizoncito has franchises all over Mexico City, one in Cuernavaca and even one in McAllen, Texas. But if you’re craving al pastor in Mexico City, don’t knock yourself out looking for an outpost of El Tizoncito. It’s like pizza in New York or hot dogs in Chicago: If you can’t find tacos al pastor in Mexico City, you’re not looking. Just look for the trompo to be sure you’re getting the real thing.
And if you’re not going to be in Mexico City anytime soon, here’s a recipe for make-at-home tacos al pastor.