Grilling: Better Tacos al Pastor
Al pastor is always my first choice for tacos—the spicy marinade, the juicy pork, the sweet pineapple. It's a powerhouse combo. While I've tried to replicate al pastor at home, I usually leave it to the pros. I figured I couldn't replicate the unique flavor and texture created with true al pastor that spins on a vertical rotisserie all day, constantly crisping the edges and basting the meat in its own rendered fat and the juice from a pineapple sitting on top.
That was until Kenji challenged me to try again, dropping a hint that an al pastor loaf may hold the key.
So I was off, updating the marinade to include anchos on top of guajillo chiles, and adding achiote paste to further deepen the color and flavor. This goes on thinly sliced pork shoulder, whose fat I hoped would add some moisture during a long cook, as opposed the lean pork loin I used previously. After the meat marinated, I packed the pork slices into a loaf pan, weighted it down with a brick, and placed it in the freezer to firm up while I prepared the grill.
I thought this was brilliant; I was able to easily tie up the pork, keeping its shape. But almost as soon as it hit the grill, it went from a loaf to a blob of al pastor. Undeterred, I kept at it, letting the pork and pineapple slices brown over direct high heat, then moving the loaf to indirect heat, topping it with the pineapple slices, and covering to let it finish with a slower cook.
I pulled the pork when it hit 160°F, and boy did it look beautiful. Had I finally cracked al pastor at home? Unfortunately, not exactly.
While it had those lovable crispy bits, it was at the cost of the outer pork slices drying out. The center was nice and juicy, but there was too much marinade that didn't cook down, which threw off the final texture. The flavor was pretty amazing though,; my new marinade was an incremental improvement over the last, building in extra earthy, smoky, and spicy notes.
So there's progress, but a lot of work still to go. Next up on the path of the al pastor: trying it out on the rotisserie!
About the author: Joshua Bousel brings you new, tasty condiment each Wednesday and a recipe for weekend grilling every Friday. He also writes about grilling and barbecue on his blog The Meatwave whenever he can be pulled away from his grill.