THE ORIGINS OF ONE OF MEXICO’S MOST BELOVED dishes can be traced all the way back to Asia. That’s where the upright grill was first used before quickly spreading around the globe. To fully understand the ancestry of Tacos al Pastor, one has to first understand the roots of the taco árabe, or Arab taco. According to Tacopedia, an essential and comprehensive guide to all things taco, the upright grill, typically used for lamb shawerma, arrived in Puebla, Mexico “undoubtedly stowed away in the baggage of a Middle Eastern immigrant.”
Shortly thereafter the taco árabe was born, spit-roasted meat served on either pitas or corn tortillas. To this day there’s a handful of businesses in Puebla that claim to be the original source of Arab tacos, with two of them, Antigua Taqueria La Oriental and Tacos Árabes Bagdad, going as far back as 1933. In Chicago one has to look no further than the Anteliz family to find tacos árabe—both Cemitas Puebla in Logan Square and Cemitas Zurita in Little Village can set you up with some, while further west, in Aurora, so can Las Cemitas Poblanas (no relation except in inspiration).
As tacos árabe made their way elsewhere in Mexico, they quickly morphed into something else completely, and that’s where tacos al pastor begin. As Tacopedia points out, the biggest changes in the product were the meat itself—which switched from lamb to heavily marinated pork in adobo (never mind that they’re still named “shepherd’s tacos”)—and the addition of cilantro and onion.
No one’s sure how pineapple came into play, but adding fruit to pork dishes for a sweet and sour tang is traditional in Mexican cooking culture. The first place of business to add pineapple is said to be El Tizoncito in Mexico City. This was in 1966 and no one else disputes it, so El Tizoncito is considered the birthplace of this style which is now found all over, and of the iconic look of tacos al pastor—a meat cone on a spit, topped with a chunk of pineapple.
Like so many Mexican dishes, the taco al pastor has regional variations. There’s tacos de adobada in Tijuana, and tacos de trompo in Monterrey which are different in both marinade (smoked paprika) and color. (Check out this link for a full primer.)
WHEN SOMEONE ASKS ME WHERE TO get the best tacos, I can’t help but think of what noted taco historian José R. Ralat once told me: “Go to Mexico.” I had never thought about it before like he explained it, but he was dead on as I thought back to the tacos I’ve eaten while there. We just don’t have the same ingredients here in the states. So while we can still experience some truly amazing tacos, none will ever achieve the out-of-body-experience that eating a Cochinita Pibil taco on the streets of Mérida can bring.
Unfortunately the same goes for tacos al pastor on the streets of D.F., or elsewhere in Mexico. Aside from the whole ingredients thing, there’s also local law. While setting up a trompo of al pastor and selling tacos on a corner might be possible in a place like Los Angeles, it’s not accepted in cities like Dallas where cooking meat on a trompo is considered a no-no by health departments. Ralat believes the root of the issue is a “cultural/culinary prejudice that sees Mexican food as dirty and dangerous.” Despite the fact that well known chefs like Alex Stupak have made al pastor a hip and trendy thing, the prejudice persists—even though no one’s getting sick in Mexico.
Me personally? I first fell in love with tacos al pastor in Cancun of all places. It was Spring Break my sophomore year of college and the one thing I could vividly remember was the addicting tacos coming from a vendor in the food court of a mega mall. They reminded me of gyros, except with so much more flavor. I ate there twice if not three times a day and ever since then I’ve been scouring the cityscape for the real deal, which must be cooked on a spit. If I don’t see a spit with a trompo of meat spinning, I’m not ordering al pastor. It’s just marinated meat otherwise.
At first it might seem as if Chicago is pretty average when it comes to options for the fresh sliced stuff off the spit, but when one really gets down to it there are probably as many spots here as there is anywhere east of LA. That’s due to another popular type of spit-roasted meat, gyros, which happens to be huge in Chicago. For every tortilleria this city has, there’s also a gyro cone distributor. All those pre-made slabs of mystery meat are made somewhere in Chicagoland, and so is the equipment to cook them with. Getting hold of that equipment is easy for all of Chicago’s mom and pop taquerias, allowing them to make real tacos al pastor right inside their restaurant.
But sometimes a gift can also be a curse, and that’s the case with these machines. They’re designed to cook the pre-made gyro meat, which for whatever reason doesn’t require the heat to be as high as a taquero would want his heat source for his trompo to be. So while Chicago does have a large number of spots where they’re cooking layered meat on a spit, many of them are using the gyro cookers that can only get so hot.
To the best of my knowledge this is the main reason why so many of them will cook the meat on a spit and slice it as it browns, only to reheat it on a flattop. But this messes with both the tenderness and also the texture of the meat, which is a huge part of an al pastor taco. It can’t be entirely avoided, but it’s one way for a taco to fall short of its magical, mystical potential.
Even more confusingly, practices aren’t always consistent within the same taqueria, or from one to the next. Some might only break out the trompo on weekends, sticking to the griddle during the week. Others might use it all week—but anticipating a rush on the weekends, cook off a bunch of meat in the morning for griddling throughout the day. As with barbecue, sometimes it’s about being in the right place at the right time. Hunting for the perfect pastor taco is an exercise in constant frustration as your taco ideals skid to a stop, somewhere short of perfection—but once in a while, you find it.
3. Tickets to Tacoville
So where, if anywhere, can one find the peak example of a taco al pastor in Chicago? Here are eleven spots that when on, can satisfy the craving. This top eleven is ranked in order of my preference, followed by a list of all the other places that I’ve seen a trompo in action—at least once, anyway. This list is years of taco-hunting and taco-eating in the making, but it can never be complete—there are always places that are new to me, and places about to pop up at any moment—and the place that was just okay today might have a great pastor day tomorrow.
1a. Tacos Marios
Where: Clearing, 4540 W. 63rd St, Chicago (773) 582-8226
When it comes to tacos al pastor, it’s all in the family business for Mario Martinez. He’s been making them on 63rd street since 2003, and going back to the 80’s as far as his catering of them. He’s a man who’s always done it the only way he knows how, and that would be the way he learned back home in Mexico City where his sister still runs an al pastor stall at a local flea market.
As I got to know Mario over time it became very clear the man takes his al pastor seriously, which is why it’s always one of the first spots I’ll mention when asked where to go for the good stuff. On a recent weekday I got the chance to hang with him as he set up the spit cooking device which he made himself, explaining to me that the gyro machines are no good for high heat. I watched as he talked me through every last move, down to shaving off the first layer of meat to ensure even cooking the rest of the way. Mario knows cooking the meat on a flattop is a no-no so you wont see him doing that here. He wants you to enjoy them the same way he does, and that’s from trompo to tortilla with a tiny piece of pineapple and nothing else. As he says, “That’s the way we eat them back home,” and his is probably the closest thing we have in taste to the thousands of set ups found throughout Mexico City.
1b. Taqueria Los Barrilitos
Where: Little Village, 3518 W 25th St, Chicago (773) 673-0102
When it comes to show and also product, this place is second to none. There’s a few other taco options on menu but as the name of the place suggests, it’s all about the barrel of pork spinning away on display as you enter. Trompo-master Jorge always has his spit up with meat roasting, and his too is one he built for himself. When it’s on full blast this thing can char some meat quicker than you can ask for an order of two tacos. One look at him in the middle of his craft and you know you’re in for a treat.
The real surprise here is the actual seasoning of the meat itself, which is unlike the traditional blend used by most others. His family recipe includes chile de arbol, cinnamon and some other stuff he doesn’t care to share. This family secret seasoning, a perfect handling/slicing of the meat, as well as as the bowl of complimentary thinly sliced and lightly pickled onions and seriously spicy habanero make these tacos an absolute treat, and the closest thing to the ones that made me fall in love with pastor in the first place.
3. Tacos El Tio
Where: Humboldt Park, 3734 W. Grand Ave., Chicago (773) 772-4899
This un-Yelped gem on Grand Avenue got my attention with its sign of a guy tending a trompo. A common characteristic found at most all of these spots, as they want you to know they’re taking the time to specialize in tacos al pastor. Well the sign got me in and the tacos kept me coming back. I consider this place and its employees proof that you can still make a damn good taco al pastor with the use of a gyros machine and a little bit of care. The men behind the counter are very comfortable with their spit and have been tending to it on each of my visits. The one fallback here is they still crisp up the meat on a flattop, but as a plus they do a really nice job of shaving it. Thus the texture is still pretty much there.
4. Taqueria El Dorado
Where: Rogers Park, 6952 N. Clark, Chicago (312) 856-6506
Further proof that a commercial machine can be used to make a great product. While the family behind this place is new to Rogers Park, they weren’t unfamiliar to me as I recognized the name, and also the sign (of a trompo) from their previous place of business. Now that they’re all settled in they easily make the best tacos al pastor on one of the city’s best taco trails (North Clark street). You’ll most always find the setup up and running, and in my visits the taquero always sliced the meat off after I had ordered. But again they’d crisp it on the flattop. However because of a thin and caring cut you still get some of that crispy texture though, it’s never quite as clean once it’s cooked a second time.
5. Birrieria Y Taqueria Jalisco Express
Where: 6001 W. 35th St., Cicero (708) 652-0829
Here we have a spot that feels more like somewhere in Dallas than it does a Chicago suburb. That’s because this place is attached to a gas station which is a common arrangement in the DFW area. The name suggests birrieria, but that’s a weekend thing. Should you stop in on a weekday, or weekend too for that matter, you should see a spit of al pastor roasting. A tip here led me to a beautiful albeit small trompo of al pastor. I knew I was going to get something good when I saw the hands on application. End result is a beautiful presentation of well-spiced, crispy strips of pork.
6. La Lagartija
Where: Near West Side, 132 S. Ashland, Chicago (312) 733-7772
This sitdown spot from the family behind Bombon Cafe is your best bet for al pastor with alcohol. It’s a bit of a wild card in that the trompo isn’t always up and running, but when it is it’s worth ordering al pastor in some form. La Lagartija makes great plates of alambres which is meat (al pastor works best) and peppers melded in cheese; the name comes from the way the cheese stretches when you eat it like a wire, alambre. They also offer a regional specialty from Mexico called a Volcan, which is a freshly crisped tortilla topped with al pastor meat and lots of melted cheese; it’s one of my favorite things to eat there.
Aim for a time when the spit is up and firing, which is anytime it might be busy—so before any event at the nearby United Center, or most weekend nights. Sometimes it’s as easy as asking for your meat crisp and cut directly from the spit.
7. Super Tacos Morelos
Where: 1800 Mannheim Rd., Stone Park (708) 223-2245
Another gas station taqueria from out West. This one is in the gritty Stone Park suburb, where many businesses have pictures on the outside promising that you’ll see something spicy spinning around a pole inside. In this case they’re luring the customers in with a big drawing of a roasting trompo in the windows, and you’ll see the real thing when you enter. On a handful of visits I’ve been served a variable product, but it’s one that differs from good to great. Sometimes it’s as good as you can get when it’s not cut directly off—and other times it’s just good but not quite great. Either way it’s a great $2 snack to go with some cheap gas if out this way. Which if you are and visiting the local clubs, you might want to turn off the phone locator app on your iPhone. Note: The location in Cicero bearing the same name was not good at all when I tried it.
8. Taco Nano
Where: 1743 Orchard Lane, Northfield (847) 386-7159
Least likely spot to find a nice piece of spinning meat on display? How about Northfield? Nevertheless I was pleasantly surprised to find meat in motion at this chef-driven taco spot near the North Shore. I was even more surprised by how much I liked it. I can’t recall the process they took in making these, but the few times I’ve been in they’ve usually been good. Even though the slices are a bit larger than average they always come well charred and thinly sliced, and the addition of a fried pickled jalapeno works great with the rest of it. Extra points for housemade tortillas, though they do sometimes have a problem reheating them.
9. Taqueria El Pastor
Where: West Lawn, 4418 W. 63rd St., Chicago (773) 284-1003
The plus of this place is in the fact they will always have a trompo going. However the minus is Mario’s is right down the block so even though they make a pretty good product, there’s always better just a block or two down. I do wonder what the thought process is behind diminishing what is a very nice looking trompo by cutting the meat into thicker than normal slices and reheating it upon ordering. They have the capability of going trompo to tortilla as the meat is always nice and colored, but never does that happen.
10/11. Two Weekly Specials
10. Rubi’s/Manolo’s at Maxwell Street Market on Sundays
Where: University Village, around 800 S. Desplaines, Chicago
I know this is the popular pick with some, mainly those who haven’t been elsewhere on this list, but to me the best part about Rubi’s is the atmosphere. There might not be anywhere else in America that feels so much like you’re actually in Mexico. However, the fact that there’s most always a line means they’re rushing to get your orders through and thus the al pastor is pressed for time to brown. End result is huge chunks with very little char flavor produced despite the fact they use a charcoal driven spit. Catch them on a slow day and you might get something really good.
11. Wednesday Special at Xoco (Both Locations)
Where: River North, 449 N. Clark, Chicago (312) 661-1434; Wicker Park, 1471 N. Milwaukee, Chicago, (872) 829-3821
Seasonally, once a week Rick’s team will set up a real deal trompo (fueled by charcoal) and offer tacos al pastor by the three. These are good with the potential to be great, but like so many other spots they skip an important step, or should I say add an extra unnecessary step. When I’ve been in for these I watched after placing my order and never saw anyone cut meat from the spit which meant it was being pre-cut which to me makes no sense at all. The meat suffered from sitting around and wasn’t extra fresh like I’d expect. The housemade tortillas are very good and I like the addition of sliced radish for crunch but if done right the crunch should come from the meat and maybe some onion and nothing else is necessary. The potential is there but not quite achieved the way I would’ve hoped.
The following is a list of other places I know of which offer tacos al pastor off of a true trompo. Entries on most of them can be found here, at The Chicago Taco Tour.
El Burrito Amigo
Hacienda Los Torres
Mi Linda Hacienda
Taqueria Santa Rita
Taqueria Amigo Chino
Taqueria Primo Chuki’s
El Rey del Taco
Back of the Yards
Tacos Don Cuco
La Placita de Durango
South Deering/East Side
Tacos Nietos (2)
Taqueria La Herradura
Taqueria La Guadalupana
Taco Grill & Salsa Bar
Titus Ruscitti is a longtime Chicago food scout and the man behind Smokin’ Chokin’ & Chowing, The Chicago Taco Tour, and What’s Your Beef? Follow his foodventures on Instagram @chibbqking and Twitter @chibbqking and @TweetsofTacos
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