Tacos Arabes: The Inside Story


A taco arabes from the El Idolo truck, seen by the greenish glow of the street lamp.

“Arab’s tacos” were invented in the city of Puebla in the 1930s, the result of Lebanese businesspeople who set up shop selling a lamb-based version of shawarma roasted on a vertical rotating spit using charcoal.

Around midnight: the El Idolo truck.

The cooking technique became popular throughout the region, and eventually in the rest of the country, although pork — topped with a slice of pineapple, to tenderize and sweeten the meat as the juice drips down — eventually replaced lamb as the twirling cylinder of composed meat. Meat cooked this way was eventually designated “al pastor,” meaning “shepherd style,” the name by which it goes today.

Concurrently, the Lebanese merchants also introduced a bread called pan arabe, which is like a small flour tortilla — at least that’s what it looks like today. Originally, it was probably a normal-looking pita.

The taco arabes as made at Pueblan eateries in the city looks like a small burrito, and is virtually indistinguishable from one, except it lacks rice, beans, and cheese as filler. At the late-night taco truck El Idolo, which parks at the corner of Eighth Avenue and 14th Street, you can have you taco arabes ($3) filled with any of the usual substances, including tongue, chicken, carnitas, carne enchilada, and tinga (a fiery chicken stew), but I recommend the traditional al pastor.

These tacos are also readily available at taquerias along Fourth and Fifth avenues in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park.

A contemporary Arab-Mexican caterer offers to make Arab’s tacos in your backyard, and gives us a good look at the portable apparatus that probably resembles the original, introduced into Puebla in the 1930s.