Long a Mexico City staple, al pastor — vertically spit-roasted pork marinated with guajillo chiles, spices, and pineapple — takes its inspiration from Middle Eastern shawarma. The piquant and porky dish, usually offered as tacos, also tops huaraches and gets stuffed into tortas.
Much like tacos arabes, the Pueblan specialty of lamb or pork grilled and served gyro-style in pita-like flatbread, al pastor first came to prominence after Lebanese, Iraqi, Syrian, and other Arab immigrants settled in Mexico. Every taquero and taquera fine-tunes and personalizes their recipe — the variety of salsas, fruit, and spicing is part of the fun — and in New York City, it’s blessedly not that difficult to locate taquerias and restaurants dishing out al pastor. With Mexican cuisine coasting on a wave of popularity stateside, it’s no wonder the heavenly combination of fat, acid, and spice would prompt city chefs and restaurants to experiment. With that in mind, here’s a guide to NYC’s new and old al pastor.
The tall rotisserie used to cook the meat is called a trompo, and traditionalists should find solace in spotting one, especially if the pineapple is stuck atop the pork on the spit so that the fruit’s sweet juices caramelize the meat’s exterior. At George Sanchez’s 25-year-old Taco Mix (234 116th Street #1, 212-289-2963), a massive boneless, spinning pork shoulder perfumes the narrow East Harlem storefront’s entrance with its porcine aromas (take that, suburban malls crop-dusting the scent of cinnamon buns). The $3 al pastor tacos come piled with pineapple and near-crimson hunks of juicy, spicy pig accented by copious onions and cilantro. Sauce it up as you wish with a trio of standard but spunky roja, verde, and avocado salsas. The stalwart taqueria also recently opened a temporary stall inside Sunset Park’s Industry City food hall — head there and you’ll have the opportunity to conduct an al pastor–off among the Brooklyn neighborhood’s many Mexican restaurants.
A few blocks inland from Industry City (and around the corner from vintage bowling alley Melody Lanes) stands the Tacos el Bronco truck, (whose team also operates a sit-down restaurant farther south). Here, delight in $1.50 tacos filled with offal, like unctuous nubbins of veal head or unthinkably tender ribbons of pork stomach. The Tacos el Bronco crew dice their pork shavings into a hash with nicely crisped bits and grill flavor. Every plate comes with gratis radishes, cucumbers, and charred scallions. Follow our lead and liberally apply Bronco’s avocado-tomatillo salsa, which has a nicely pronounced citrus edge, to everything. Elsewhere, we like the faithful renditions at Taqueria Diana and Rosie’s in the East Village, and Tortilleria Nixtamal in Corona.
No discussion of al pastor in this town would be complete without mentioning Alex Stupak, the pioneering pastry whiz who fell hard for Mexican cuisine and traded in his Pacojets for DIY salsa tastings. Stupak was so smitten with the sweet-savory combination of pork and pineapple that he opened Empellón al Pastor (132 St. Marks Place; 646-833-7039), a convivial taqueria that produces its sturdy and assertively fragrant masa tortillas on-site.
Stupak’s tacos feature broad slabs of flame-smooched pork and thinly sliced fresh pineapple laid over single tortillas for $4. The kitchen drizzles its aromatic corn canvases with three salsas: roja, verde, and a fiery, rust-colored chile de arbol. Their intensity belies Stupak’s fine-dining roots, but the delivery system thankfully retains a fast-casual feel. An avenue west, the enterprising chef cheekily offers modernist “inverse al pastor” tacos as the savory climax of his $95 and $165 kitchen table tastings at Empellón Cocina (105 First Avenue, 212-780-0999). Guests sitting at the four-seat counter overlooking the restaurant’s semi-open kitchen will find a miniature trompo holding deeply caramelized pineapple rotating under a brick of melting pork fat. By spicing the pineapple and basting it in lardo, the sumptuous, charred fruit and creamy animal fat coalesce into something weird and wonderful.
Beyond tacos, tortas, and other traditional preparations, plenty of chefs and industry professionals are putting modern spins on the cult favorite. Progressive chef Enrique Olvera, who grew up in and around Mexico City, forgoes pig altogether in his playful take on the dish at Cosme (35 East 21st Street, 212-913-9659) in the Flatiron, where he uses a subtle chile-spiked pineapple purée to accent oily, firm slices of spiced cobia nestled under near-translucent slips of pineapple. The fatty, white-fleshed fish takes beautifully to its gentle, ruddy seasoning, which Olvera applies with a measured hand.
Staten Island–reared chef and new-wave pizzaiolo Bobby Hellen of GG’s (511 East 5th Street; 212-687-3641) in the East Village mixes his love of the Mets with a riff on Hawaiian pizza by way of Mexico. His al pastor–inspired Ron Darling pizza honors the former Mets pitcher, current MLB announcer, and Aloha State native with a mozzarella-and-pickled-pineapple-topped round pie. It’s layered with extra-smoky country ham that crisps up in the oven. In a fun and most pertinent twist, Hellen squirts squiggles of fruity and fiery al pastor marinade over the top.
And if you were worried that you might be restricted to chewing your al pastor, Jeff Bell of venerable and boundary-pushing neo-speakeasy PDT (113 St. Marks Place) will gladly set you straight. Motivated in part by the arrival of Empellón al Pastor across the street, Bell devised a cocktail that pays homage to the dish with pineapple vinegar, chile liqueur, and beer (the ideal accompaniment to tacos al pastor). Called the “Pils al Pastor,” Bell’s drink even inspired a beverage of its own thanks to Jeppe Jarnit–Bjergsø, who produced a batch of Pils al Pastor beer through his Evil Twin Brewing Company, now available for sale at PDT and around the city. Brewed with chiles, pineapple, and lime, it’s a spicy, citrusy pilsner that, like comedian John Oliver, cackles in the face of Bud Light Lime. Our suggestion? Smuggle in some Empellón tacos to PDT, or a few unopened beers into Empellón al Pastor, and have yourself an al past-orgy.