KIDS ARE RUNNING AND PLAYING ON the playground equipment; under the shelter, a couple of folding tables have been set out and festooned with colorful tablecloths and balloons. This being Chicago, when one loudly pops later in the afternoon, everyone looks up to see if someone is shooting. But mostly it’s a pleasant Sunday in Warren Park in West Ridge on the far north side, and a birthday party is about to take place for an extended Mexican family.
Meanwhile, the caterer they’ve hired is setting up shop by the fence and the driveway, unloading from his white van. Martin Garcia is laying out the parts of a metal contraption with a propane tank, while his wife Yesenia stands under a blue tent and over a portable flat top grill, or plancha. She’s frying up the first of three meats which will be available that afternoon—and this is when you know this is a true Mexican celebration. The meat she’s frying looks like elbow macaroni all over the grill: tripas, tripe, little sections of tubular small intestine.
Martin parks the van and sets up his his portable stand for cooking a cone of al pastor meat. The propane tank beneath it is only for heating the small plancha under the trompo, or cone of meat; the rest of the cooking will be by blazing charcoal, stacked vertically in a two-level box.
He puts a long metal stick into one of the holes in a bracket in front of the charcoal box—designed so you can move the meat closer to the fire as you shave it away—and he begins piling the meat onto the pointed stick, building his trompo. This is why the headline claims he’s Chicago most authentic tacos al pastor maker—an arguable point, I’ll admit. (Those clickbaity headline writers!) But his trompo cooking in front of live charcoal fire is something that’s a common street sight in Mexico, but rare in Chicago; the only other ones I know of are the pastor stands at Maxwell Street on Sunday.
The setup is a bit ramshackle—the shape of the charcoal box has been distorted with heat in the six years he’s been doing this every summer weekend—but he bought it from Mexico and it’s served him true. “I don’t want to change because it’s still good and [it burns] the charcoal so good,” Martin says. “I try another one—not the same. It’s kind of old and dirty—not dirty from the outside, but the meat and the smoke and everything. But it’s good.”
One thing I quickly learn is that he’s a man with standards for every step of how he cooks pastor—which is why it pains him to admit that as I’m photographing him, he’s compromised one of them. He normally butchers and marinates the pork shoulder for his pastor himself, but this weekend he’s bought it pre-sliced and marinated from his carniceria of choice, Morelia Supermarket on Western. The reason? Next weekend is their daughter’s quinceanera, and he just doesn’t have the time.
Once the trompo is built, he trims the edges off to form the familiar gyros cone shape; the scrap meat will go on the grill. To be honest, this could be seen as another compromise—for both me and Fooditor contributor Hunter Owens, who’s joined me today, our Platonic ideal is meat charred by the fire and sliced right onto a hot tortilla, and in my (modest) experience in Mexico, that’s how it’s done. Garcia promises he’ll make them for us that way, but he says that Chicago’s Mexicans seem to prefer it the other way—one, it ensures that everything is cooked through, and two, because you can dish them up faster for a long line.
As the fire catches, it crackles loudly—too loudly, it turns out, for Martin; he’s trying a new brand of charcoal and it’s kicking out an unacceptable number of sparks, which leave black specs of ash on the meat. He wipes them off and then folds a little foil around the trompo until the fire settles down. One thing he wants to make clear for this article is that everything here is done on a professional and legal level; Garcia has sanitation certification like any caterer—”The meat is always hot.” That’s why it’s all cooked on site, just before serving; it may be held on-site in a warming bin, but it wasn’t cooked at home and then packed in a van, like others do it.
Martin and his wife do this every weekend through the summer. By now, under the name Taquizas El Cobijas, they’re well-known in the Rogers Park Mexican community and booked solid through the pastor-in-the-park season, doing parties, weddings, quinceaneras. Today’s is the third event he’s done for the same family. “I’m so busy, we’re so busy, we have like three months that I don’t get a day off,” he says.
So what does he do the rest of the time? I’m not surprised by the answer: “I’m working for two restaurants, one in the morning, and one in the night,” he says. But I am surprised by the names of his employers: “I’m working for Chili’s, and I work for Lettuce Entertain You,” he says. He’s worked for Lettuce for a couple of different restaurants—he worked for Tallboy Tacos, and right now he works for M Burger. “Sometimes I bring this to work, and make tacos for my guys,” he says.
My head spins with the possibilities… knowing that M Burger has secret menu items, the ultimate secret menu burger, perhaps the ultimate burger in all of Chicago would pile Martin’s pastor on a couple of patties… Coming back down to earth I ask him what he’s working toward—a restaurant? “Next summer,” he says. “Not in Chicago—Chicago’s so expensive. We’re going straight to the suburbs—probably Skokie, or Palatine. She doesn’t want to move [from Rogers Park]. She’s happy here, so I’m happy here,” he shrugs.
Skokie or Palatine—not what one thinks of as prime Mexican food territory, so I hope they appreciate what they’re about to get. In the meantime Yesenia has been frying up the last of the three meats, carne asada, and they serve the guests at the party first. After the first wave has gotten their tacos, he starts rotating the trompo to get us just the right amount of char, and then slices pieces directly onto the tortillas for us, finishing with a flick of the knife to plop a couple of pieces of pineapple and onion from the top onto our tacos:
The pastor has that nice crispy caramelized edge and the subtle spice of the chile marinade, set off by the citrus brightness of the pineapple. Hunter critiques a few aspects of his technique—he wishes Martin didn’t scrupulously clean up the drippings from the trompo on the plancha but let the tortillas sit there and catch them—but we agree that they’re about as good pastor tacos as you’ll find in Chicago, and about as close as anything comes to what we’ve both experienced in different parts of Mexico, too. The carne asada is perfectly nice, but a bit to our surprise, we’re both very impressed with the tripas, fried to a bacony crispness that’s full of flavor (and mostly free of any tripey funk).
What could be better for a Sunday afternoon in the summer than eating these tacos outdoors? That’s exactly the subject of one of the greatest artworks in Chicago, ordinary working people enjoying the simple pleasures en plein air. Georges Seurat would feel right at home here, enjoying Sunday in the park—with pastor.
Where to try Martin Garcia’s tacos: sorry, his catered events are usually not open to the public. But he will be serving the public at the Kermes (carnival) at St. Jerome’s, 1709 W. Lunt, on Saturday, August 20.
Michael Gebert is the pastor of Pastor of Fooditor.
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