Tacos al Pastor - Quintessentially Chilango

Pork, shawarma style, for tacos al pastor
Mexico, like its northern neighbor, is a melting pot. Its cuisine is a mélange of many foreign influences. Certain  dishes, like the torta the legacy of the Italian panino, were adapted to Mexican tastes. Another, tacos al pastor, which translates as “Shepherd’s tacos,” is now a quintessential Mexico City food. Its history is vague. Some say Lebanese immigrants brought their shawarma to nearby Puebla in the 1930s and the Middle Eastern method of cooking seasoned lamb on an upright spit, which evolved from the Turkish doner kebab, morphed into an essentially Mexican foodstuff. (Tacos arabes are still to be found.) Others claim the introduction was later, in the ’50s, and the setting was the capital. Regardless, it is agreed that lamb was first used in the tacos, but because Mexico is not a lamb-eating society, pork was substituted and condiments were added to suit Mexican tastes.
To make tacos al pastor, sliced, pounded strips of pork are marinated in fruit juice, chili and spices such as cumin, achiote and oregano, then stacked on an upright skewer and grilled, manually turned from time to time. The recipes vary from stand to stand — proprietors are loath to give away their secrets. Because the special grill and spit are necessary to make the dish, no one in Mexico sees fit — or is logistically able — to make it at home and tacos al pastor are almost always found in street stands or fondas. True recipes are thus hard to come by. Restaurateur Martha Chapa (of the acclaimed Dulce Pátria in Mexico City) provides an intriguing home adaptation in Los Tacos de México that includes pineapple vinegar and fresh juice, guajillo and ancho chilies, garlic, onion and cilantro. Chicago-based Rick Bayless’ recipe features achiote (sometimes called annatto, it’s extracted from the seeds of the red spiny achiote fruit) that colors the marinade red, as well as canned chipotle chilies.
While at home the meat would be cooked over an open grill, in professional venues the vertical apparatus is topped by a hunk of pineapple and onion which render their sweet juices. The meat is sliced off by the pastorero, (a tacos al pastor maker) and served as an open taco on a small soft corn tortilla. A sliver of the pineapple, chopped cilantro, onion and a dollop of drippings top it off. Diners augment with lime and salsa to taste.
Taco condiments
Condiments for tacos. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

One of my favorite places to eat tacos al pastor is El Huequito (which means “the little hole”), a tiny operation in this city’s Centro Histórico, founded in 1959 and among the first places in the city to serve tacos al pastor. At El Huequito the sliced meat is bathed in a moderately picante salsa of chile de árbol, enhanced with chopped onion and cilantro and rolled up in its small tortilla. Several salsas are available for serious chileros — chili lovers. The meat is juicy and succulent, the smoky grilled aroma lingering until you take the next bite. Washed down with an ice-cold horchata or agua de Jamaica, these morsels are simply divine.
But I live in the Art Deco district of La Condesa, a couple of miles from Mexico City’s old center. When I need a quick lunch I stroll over to El Tizoncito, a much-loved open-air taquería surrounded by high stools. Like many places, it claims to have “invented” the taco al pastor. As the large, conical pastor roasts slowly in front of the red-hot vertical grill, curls of aromatic, heady, meaty smoke waft lazily toward the hungry diners. Fresh-fried tortilla chips are delivered with the salsa stand and its five little pots of colorful sauces in varying shades of bright greens and brick reds. Another pot contains warm bean purée.
The pastorero works swiftly, slicing off the hottest, crustiest pieces from the mound along with a bit of bronzed pineapple and a spoonful of drippings. He quickly sprinkles on diced sweet white onion and dusts the top of the taco with finely chopped cilantro. The plate of three open tacos is whisked to my table. Only three at a time, that’s the limit. I think about adding more salsa, lime — but, no — why gild the lily? I pick up a taco, folding up the sides with thumb and index finger, closing the end with the forefinger. With the first bite, I immediately get that flavor of roast pork, the perfume of cilantro, the bite of the onion, subtle bitter aroma of chili, and the sweet heady piña. One more small bite and the first taco’s gone. The second and third follow. I hail the waiter and ask for more. I think about the bittersweet experience of downing a dozen of the best oysters, that feeling of mourning you enter when you’re on number 12. It’s always over too soon.

El Huequito
Ayuntamiento 21 (near López), Centro (and many branches)
El Tizoncito
Tamaulipas 122, Condesa (many branches)

Also worth checking out:

Plaza Meave
Eje Central, east side, between  Rep. El Salvador & Meave, Centro
This one, in the entrance to a hideous electronics mall, may not be the best but it's certainly the biggest. You can pick up a portable phone cheap while you're at it.

El Trompito
Londres 119 (near Dinamarca, Zona Rosa)

Piny Tacos Kosher
Ejército Nacional 458, near Emerson, Polanco (opens at 6PM, closed Friday eve, obviously)

Believe it or not, they make tacos al pastor with beef here. And they're good. Mavel Tov!

Tacos El Greco
Michoacán 54, Condesa
Try the earlier, Middle Eastern version here. Opens at 2.

El Pastorcito
Lorenzo Boturini 4503 (way south & east of the centro)
This place is out of most people's way but legendary.

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See my video of a couple of years back:


Chiles en Nogada Redux

Each September Mexico celebrates its independence from Spain and its national pride during Fiestas Patrias, with lots of fireworks, mariachis, tequila, and, of course, chiles en nogada, Mexico’s most ‘patriotic’ dish.

A true mestizo food, the origins of this rich concoction are enshrouded in legend. The story goes that Agustín de Iturbide, 'emperor' of Mexico, arrived in Puebla on August 28th, 1821, having signed the Treaty of Córdoba affirming Mexico’s independence from Spain.  He was offered an elaborate comida in honor of his saint’s day, prepared by the nuns of the Convent of Santa Mónica. Don Agustín refused all the tempting platters offered him, fearful of being poisoned (either by the Spanish, who considered him a traitor, or the insurgents who suspected him of planning yet another monarchy; they were right). He feigned stomach trouble, but when the exquisite chile en nogada was served, he couldn’t resist. Records show that versions of this dish existed long before these events, but it’s a good story, and the dish has been associated with Mexico’s independence ever since (August and September also happen to be the months when the star ingredients, walnuts and pomegranates, are in season). Chef, culinary historian and restaurateur Ricardo Muñoz Zurita admonishes that nogada made with dried, packaged nuts, is “vastly inferior” and “should not be taken seriously”. Restaurants offering the dish year-round are automatically suspect.

Chile en nogada is a green poblano chili, filled with ground seasoned meat, bathed in cream and walnut sauce, then sprinkled with pomegranate seeds and parsley. The red, white, and green of the dish are the colors of the Mexican flag, symbolizing Las Tres Garantías (the three guarantees) of the Constitution: union, religion, and independence.

There are as many recipes for chile en nogada as there are cooks, and most Mexican families have a jealously guarded one. The controversy of whether to capear (fry in batter), or leave it natural is a perennial dilemma. For me, that extra turn in oil is gilding an already fattening lily, so all of the chiles en nogada mentioned in this article are sin capear. I’ve sampled many over the years – at the tables of Mexican friends, in humble market fondas, and at high end gastronomic temples, both here and abroad, and I’ve come to a conclusion: this classic dish should not be tampered with. A “deconstructed” version I once had at a trendy New York eatery, posed a naked chili atop its sauce instead of underneath, deeply offending my visiting Mexican friends.

It seems that all the best recipes come from somebody’s grandmother, but getting someone to share that carefully guarded secret is another matter. Regina Gómez Dantés, language teacher and native capitalina hosts an annual chiles en nogada party, continuing a tradition started by her mother in the 1950’s. She reluctantly agreed to share her mother’s recipe –only because I have known her for 20 years!

Los Chiles en Nogada de Doña María Esther Dantés Arce
serves eight
For the picadillo:
1 k. (2lb) tomatoes
1 medium onion
4 cloves garlic
4 slices bacon
4 slices Serrano ham
¼ k. (1/2lb) each ground beef and loin of pork
1 plantain
2 slices pineapple in syrup
1 slice biznaga (candied fruit)
100g (3.5oz) each chopped almond and pecan
50g (2oz) chopped black olives
30g (1TB) chopped capers
4 tart apples, peeled and chopped
2 pears, peeled and chopped
2 peaches, chopped
Olive oil
8 medium poblano chilies
Pomegranate seeds
Chopped parsley
Salt and pepper to taste

For the Nogada
1 package (1/2lb) Philadelphia Cream Cheese
1 cup whipping cream
½k (l lb) fresh nuez de castilla (walnuts)

Prepare the chilies: Roast over an open flame or under the broiler until the skin blackens, turning frequently – place in a paper bag for 20 minutes. Remove blackened skin by rubbing, but do not
run under water; it doesn’t matter if a little bit of skin is left.
Make the picadillo: Sauté the ingredients up to the meat in a little oil until well seasoned; add nuts and biznaga, and lastly the fresh fruit, diced to 1/4”. Season with salt and pepper.
Prepare the nogada: put all ingredients in the blender; add sugar to taste.
Stuff prepared chilies with meat filling, pour sauce over chilies and dot with pomegranate seeds and parsely. Serve with white rice, nothing else.


If you don´t have the energy to make your own, many restaurants are offering chiles en nogada this month. The best we sampled were carefully and lovingly prepared, with attention paid to the creaminess of the sauce, the contrasting texture of the filling, and a delicate balance of sugar, spice and salt. So here are some of my favorite places to enjoy that rare combination of pleasure and patriotism, chiles en nogada.

Fonda Mi Lupita
Buen tono 22, at Delicias, near the San Juan market, Centro histórico
Tel. 5521-1962
Open Monday-Saturday 1pm-6 pm

Excellent, perhaps the best chiles en nogada (and, at 80 pesos, the cheapest) are only occasionally served in this funky hole-in-the-wall fonda, best known for its mole poblano. Prepared with attention to detail, the picadillo is chock full of fruit, spiced with cinnamon, clove and nutmeg; the meat is hand chopped, not machine ground, making for a more rustic texture. The nogada, thick and creamy (and not sparing of the expensive walnuts), is fragrant with cinnamon. The waitress explained that the recipe came from the grandmother of the owner, Don Rosendo. Four Star.

La Ki-K (formerly La Fonda de Don José)
Fernando Montes de Oca 42, corner of Atlixco, Condesa
Tel. 5211-9564
Open Sunday-Tuesday 9AM-6PM, Wednesday-Saturday 9AM- 11PM

This pleasant, unpretentious Condesa eatery features a sidewalk terrace and an extensive menu of Mexican and international dishes. Chef Federico Ramirez, son of the original owner, explained that his recipe for chiles en nogada comes from his maternal grandmother, Doña Simona Cantú – no surprise. The meat here is shredded, flavorful, and a bit picante; the nogada is only slightly sweet--a blue ribbon example.

513 Mazaryk, Polanco
Tel: 5280-1671
Open Monday-Saturday 1pm-1am, Sunday 1pm-6pm

A friend’s mother thinks Patricia Quintana’s version is the best in town, so I had to check it out—I always listen to mothers about food. Izote is one of the best-known restaurants in Mexico, and chef Quintana has a high reputation for her refined classic Mexican dishes. She does not disappoint with her chile en nogada. The flavors are well balanced (if a bit milder than those mentioned above) and beautifully presented, but at $350 pesos (“is that for one or two?”) is outrageously over-priced.

El Cardenal
Three locations:
Palma 23, (between 5 de Mayo & Madrero) centro

Juárez 70 (inside the Sheraton, facing the Alameda)

Paseo de las Palmas 215 (Colonia Lomas de Chaputepec)

This 60 year old highly successful institution had languished for years in its dusty original location like a Chekovian widow until someone decided to re-fashion it as a purveyor of Nueva Cocina Mexicana - something it does with mixed success. I Always eat something good here, however, and return from time to time; I still prefer the now spruced up original location on Palma. And the chiles en nogada we sampled recently were superior.

Sanborn’s (La Casa de Los Azulejos)
Calle Madero 4 corner of Eje Central, Centro
Tel: 5512-1331
Open daily 7am–1am

Everybody in Mexico knows this venerable institution with its branches all over the country. It’s the old standby for a late-night bowl of soup or the ‘clean’ breakfast for your visiting relatives, but not generally recognized as a culinary Mecca. I thought I’d see how a chain, the oldest in the country, might do this classic dish. I went to the source, the original 18th century Casa de Azulejos in the Centro, to sample the fare. Predictably, Sanborn’s version is less carefully fashioned: the chile was undercooked, the filling bland and the sauce runny. But, not bad for corporate cooking, and for $115 pesos you also get a soup, salad, dessert and drink, all traditional Mexican recipes and all very good. Goes to prove that even our institutions still produce 'real food'.

Text and Photos © 2009/2012 Nicholas Gilman - all rights reserved