Desperately seeking tacos al pastor

by April on September 12, 2011

We’re big fans of Tony Bourdain (I can call him Tony, right? It feels like we could be related.). But I’ve been putting off watching his No Reservations episode on Mexico because I was afraid it would be too good.

We used to go to Mexico once a year for a family reunion in Piedras Negras, and despite the fact that I can understand but not speak much Spanish, I loved our time there. Piedras Negras sits at the northeastern edge of the Mexican state of Coahuila on the U.S.-Mexico border, across the Rio Grande from Eagle Pass, Texas.

South of the border

Luis has family on both sides of the border, so although he lived in Eagle Pass, he grew up in two countries. This is why he’s fluent in Spanish (well, that, and the fact that his Mexican aunt would pinch him when he spoke English). Piedras is only a few hours away from Austin, but it’s a whole new world. We’d go to the market where we bought cowboy boots and ate icy raspadas; the restaurant where his family has sat for decades of Sunday breakfasts; a little empanada shop that still makes my mouth water when I think of it. Then there was the square where we’d walk late at night to get cups of grilled corn from the street vendors, sliced off the cob and topped with butter, lime, and chile powder.

In fact we so love Mexico that we honeymooned there, too, renting a car and high-tailing it out of all-inclusive Cancun to seek out quaint Valladolid and vibrant Mérida.

We long for Mexico. Unfortunately the situation there isn’t good. As much as we miss it, gang violence along the border has affected members of our family, and they are rightfully scared. This year the reunion was held in San Antonio, and the stories from our Mexican relatives were horrible and heart-breaking. We worry for their safety.

I don’t know when we’ll make it back to Mexico, but I did know that Bourdain was going to make us miss it something awful, and sure enough, he delivered. He hit up street vendors, early morning menudo cafes, and taco stands, and left us with a serious craving for tacos al pastor.

A taco from Lebanon

Tacos al pastor is a funny sort of taco. It comes to us from the Lebanese who immigrated to Mexico, but it was given the Mexican spin. Chef David Sterling of Los Dos cooking school (an absolute must-do if you are ever in Mérida), describes the transformation:

…the traditional spit-roasted meat called shawarma — generally comprised of layers of seasoned lamb on a vertical skewer that rotates in front of a flame — evolved locally with the substitution of pork marinated in achiote with a pineapple balanced on top. Thin pieces of pork and pineapple are shaved off of the [trompo (vertical rotisserie)] and onto a fresh tortilla. The now-Mexicanized name of this dish — tacos al pastor, or shepherd’s taco — reveals its ancient mideastern roots and belies its principle ingredient, which would no doubt be viewed as a scandalous twist in the pork-eschewing land of its origin. Again, this taco is finished — and localized — by the diner’s own addition of chile tamulado, x’nipek, lime juice or other typical condiments.

But finding this glorious melding of Lebanese and Mexican cuisine isn’t easy, even in a border state. Perhaps it was my demanding list of requirements:

  1. Tacos al pastor shalt not come from a trendy South Austin eatery with a fancy website.
  2. Ordering tacos al pastor must require Spanish. (Okay, you can order in English, but I’m pretty sure they taste better if you don’t.)
  3. Topo Chico must be served at the establishment.

I wanted Bourdain-style street food. And I found it. I present to you, Rosita’s Famous Tacos al Pastor:

Luis would have given it two thumbs up, but he was too busy eating his taco.

Well, are you still with me, or are you on your way to 1911 E. Riverside Drive, looking for a little taco trailer and a taste of heaven wrapped in corn tortilla? I do hope it’s the latter.

And please, don’t be a wuss — pile on the salsa verde.

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