TNT Diner

Halfway between taco and gyro, here’s why you want tacos al pastor

'Tower of meat' roasting on a vertical spit in Tacoma

Anthony Hubbard, executive chef of Brewers Row in Tacoma, explains how he prepares al pastor.
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Anthony Hubbard, executive chef of Brewers Row in Tacoma, explains how he prepares al pastor.

Al pastor tacos are one of those import-export food tales involving multiple countries and cultures.

The al pastor cooking style is a relative of shawarma or gyros, courtesy of Lebanese immigrants who brought the spinning-cone-of-meat technique to Mexico.

The style of cooking spread across the country, becoming a popular street-food snack.

And then it was exported here. It’s easy to find in California or Texas, but much harder around here.

I know, because at least once a year a Texas transplant calls or messages asking for it.

After a little research, Texas transplants (and others) will be happy to learn I’ve found two Tacoma restaurants that make al pastor the Lebanese, err Mexican, way.

It took so long because while plenty of taco trucks and taquerias serve al pastor, they cook the meat on a grill, not a vertical roaster.

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Al pastor taco at Taqueria Los Parados. Sue Kidd skidd@thenewstribune.com

Whenever I see it on the menu, I ask, “Is that cooked on a rotating spit?” Only two so far have said yes.

When you find a place that cooks al pastor the real-deal way using a vertical spit roaster, you’ll see the difference.

An al pastor meat cone is slapped together using long strips of marinated or seasoned pork. As the cone spins around in the roaster, the searing heat from the roaster delivers crispy edges to the flavorful, fatty-edged strips of pork. The juices roll down the meat cone, giving it a delicious fat bath.

Those crispy edges are the signature texture —and ultimately flavor—of al pastor.

Here’s where to get it.

Taqueria Los Parados

Where: 5604 Portland Ave. E., Tacoma.

If a brewer tells you to go eat someplace, you go there. The tip about Taqueria Los Parados came from Jeff Carlson, head brewer at Harmon Brewing Co.

About a decade ago brothers Cornelio and Jesus Ortiz started Taqueria Los Parados as a hole-in-the-wall with three tables and stools at a counter.

“It’s like our restaurant in Mexico City,” said Jesus Ortiz, who manages the restaurant. His brother is the owner.

In Mexico City, they also served al pastor using a time-honored Mexico City method.

“I use 15 spices in the marinade,” said Ortiz. He ticked off a partial list: cumin, garlic, cloves, bay leaves, cinnamon, thyme, marjoram and orange juice.

No pineapple, a traditional flavor for al pastor?

“It makes it too sweet,” said Ortiz.

The pork strips marinate for 24 hours, then they’re assembled into the cone shape. Weekdays, the roaster holds about 20-30 pounds. On the weekends, about 70.

Taqueria Los Parados in Tacoma roasts traditional pork al pastor.

“We cook it using the same process as gyros,” said Ortiz. “The difference between gyros and pastor, it’s the meat. They use lamb. We use pork.”

And, of course, he said the al pastor marinade “is always Mexican style.”

They open for business at 5 p.m., serving dinner until about 11 p.m. The restaurant is closed Mondays.

Taqueria Los Parados prides itself on being low-tech, said Ortiz. No business phone. Cash only. No website. No social media.

Diners can watch the process from the register. The spinning rotisserie is in eyesight.

Ortiz sharpens his knife, then slices strips of crispy pork from the meat cone onto a spatula. The strips are moved to an adjacent grill for an extra dose of free radicals.

“I have to make sure they’re cooked thoroughly,” said Ortiz later by phone.

They’re generous with al pastor here. A trio of tacos arrived with mounds of the grilled meat atop doubled-up corn tortillas that had been warmed on the grill, then covered in chopped fresh onions, grilled onions and cilantro ($2.50 each).

The al pastor here was not punched with chile flavor or the sweetness of pineapple, but the clove, cumin, garlic and cinnamon yielded plenty of deep flavor.

A combination alambre plate held a copious amount of al pastor, plus chicken and chorizo, with a cheesy tangle of grilled green peppers and onions ($15). It came with a dozen tortillas, plus slow-simmered white beans and two forks. It was enough to feed a small family.

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Executive Chef Anthony Hubbard prepares al pastor at Brewers Row in Tacoma. Joshua Bessex joshua.bessex@gateline.com

Brewers Row

Where: 3205 N. 26th St., Tacoma; 253-327-1757; brewersrowtacoma.com.

Anthony Hubbard, executive chef at Brewers Row in Tacoma, used cooking techniques from Rick Bayless, the cookbook author known for his intense research of Mexican cuisine, as a guide for his al pastor recipe.

The pork at Brewers Row carries a little bit of spicy punch from achiote paste and chipotle, plus tang from pineapple juice. The result is bright-and-punchy pork with crispy edges.

Kitchen staff assemble the meat cone in two different shapes — either a reverse hourglass with a fat middle or traditional cone. They start with thin, quarter-inch slices that are marinated before slapped onto the cone.

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Al pastor tacos served at Brewers Row in Tacoma. Joshua Bessex joshua.bessex@gateline.com

“It takes a little practice to get right,” said Hubbard. “It’s kind of an exercise in food prep and structural integrity.”

The cone starts spinning in the early hours, but there are occasional days when they don’t have it going. On those days, the al pastor is grilled to order, said Hubbard.

Served as a taco, the crispy-edged pork was topped with cubed, grilled pineapple, which serves as a sweet foil to the fatty pork, with a pile of chopped onions, fresh cilantro, sliced radishes and cotija cheese ($8.75, trio plate).

Don’t miss the del fuego nachos ($13.50). A generous pile of al pastor meat was topped with fresh-fried chips dusted with chile powder, chipotle salsa, chipped cilantro, melted cheese and finely diced pickled red chiles with a wallop of spice.

On the lookout

Know of other Pierce County restaurants with al pastor made the way described in this article? Email me at skidd@thenewstribune.com. I’ll pass along your tip.

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