Did you know that October is Pastor Appreciation Month? Really. So in honor of this wonderful way of cooking pork, I suggested I take Don Day’s Wife for an extravagant lunch at San Miguel’s Tuesday Market so we could pay homage in harmony. Recognizing the significance of the event and, perhaps more so because she was hungry, Don Day’s Wife agreed.
The term al pastor can be defined as in “the style of the shepherd”. Which seemed very strange to me when I first arrived in San Miguel de Allende. You see, I was summoned to Sunday school as a child (and sometimes actually went there instead of the Dairy Queen), at a tender age I already knew that shepherds watch their sheep by night not their pigs. And tacos al pastor contain pork not lamb. There is, of course, like almost everything else in this town (except how those Saturday night Celaya girls can walk in four inch heels on cobblestones), an explanation.
Though they’d been around since, at least, the late fifties, tacos al pastor became very popular in Central Mexico in the seventies when there was a large emigration from Lebanon to escape their Civil War. The Lebanese brought with them their style of grilling lamb on a horizontal, rotating spit, a style called shawarma. Due to pork being cheaper than lamb and pork being more popular with Mexicans than lamb, one meat slowly replaced the other. The word pastor however stuck (maybe because there’s no term for “in the style of the swineherd”?).
Before it gets a chance to play on the merry-go-round, the pork for tacos al pastor must be sliced and hammered into thin strips and then marinated in a mix of chiles, cumin, achiote (a spice that also gives the pork that reddish color), cilantro, onion and pineapple. How pineapple came to be used, Don Day does not know. It certainly didn’t come from the Lebanese. And the fruit is not native to Mexico. Don Day does know, however, that pineapple contains bromelein and, in Don Day’s opinion, nothing tenderizes meat better than bromelein.
After the pork has been marinated for a few hours, it is somehow formed into a giant cylinder and placed on the prong. I have always wondered how you get the pork to all stick together and form this roll of porcine pleasure. But, because I’m afraid that someone called Elmer may be involved, I have chosen to never ask why.
I don’t know what it’s called in Lebanon but, in Mexico, the rotating spit is appropriately called el trompo. It shares its name with those wooden tops that you spin by wrapping and pulling a string that you’ll see for sale in places wherever you’ll see tourists in Centro San Miguel (though I can’t remember ever seeing a kid playing with one). On top of the prong is usually placed a pineapple and sometimes an onion so that their juices drizzle down over the meat.
Now you don’t just slice and serve the pork from el trompo. It then goes on to a grill where it is tossed and turned, chopped and flopped by people who bring back memories of those plate spinners who came on to The Ed Sullivan Show right about the time we needed a bathroom break. Then again, maybe they’re more like the old Chop-o-Matic peddler that came on during the commercial. As do all occupations that require special talents, the juggler manning the spit has a name. He is a pastorero. You can see one Mexico City master pastorero in action here:
Now you don’t have to go to Mexico City to enjoy tacos al pastor because their popularity spread north from the capital long ago. And you can’t make them at home because you can’t buy your spouse an upright spit and grill for their birthday in case they cause you grievous bodily harm. But you can do as Don Day does and go to San Miguel de Allende’s Tuesday Market like we did this week and visit Pancho Tacos Pizza.
Pancho is the busiest stand in the entire market. Every Tuesday they sell hundreds of tacos al pastor and the reason why? They’re good, very good.
You can get your puerco al pastor on tacos as Don Day does. Or you can get your puerco al pastor on a torta as Don Day’s Wife does. Or you can also get it on a gringa or burrito as neither of us do but many other people do. I squeeze a little lime on the pork, then top it with chopped onions, a sprinkle of cilantro and just a titch of the salsa roja. The tacos seem to get even better late in the day when business slows down and the meat becomes a little more charred and caramelized. Two tacos are enough for Don Day but Don Day usually orders three.
We asked for la cuenta and Don Day’s Wife, who rarely says anything positive when we’re dining at a place that’s one step above a street meat stand, looked at me and said, “Those were really juicy, really tasty, we should come back again soon.”
Don Day paid the bill of $37 pesos, which for those not familiar with current exchange rates is less than three U.S. bucks. Didn’t I tell you I was going to take her for an extravagant lunch.
We did our usual stop to pick up barbacoa and consome at La Bodeguita de Oro for dinner and, when we arrived home, I thought, if there’s a Pastor Appreciation Month site on the internet, I’m going to post some words and pictures to share my enthusiasm. I Googled the three words and I got 2,040,000 responses. And I thought this was just some local delicacy! I went to the first page and quickly recofnized the errors of my ways. I had made an enormous mistake. Pastor Appreciation Month is not about tacos, it’s about paying homage to the clergy.
“Gimme that ol’ time religion. Give me that ol’ time religion.”
Pancho Tacos Pizza is located at the Mercado Municipale in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. You’ll find the restaurant on the southern edge of the market and about midway between the east and west ends.