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Nothing is created in a vacuum...unless, of course, you consider that everything in the universe exists in the near-vacuum of space. So, maybe I should rephrase that: All things are created in a vacuum. But that's not really the point I'm trying to make today. Today, it's all about how one creation can inspire another. Let's start with tacos árabes.
Tacos árabes are, as the name suggests, "Arab" tacos, and they come from the city of Puebla in Mexico. It's hard to get a crystal-clear explanation of their origins, but the basic story is that Middle Eastern immigrants* arrived in Puebla sometime around or shortly after the First World War and brought with them the shawarma-making tradition of serving thinly sliced, spit-roasted marinated lamb in pita bread.
It didn't take long, in a country already enamored of wrapping meats and other savories in a soft corn tortilla, for the taco and the shawarma traditions to collide. The lamb quickly became pork, and the classic Middle Eastern yogurt sauces were joined (and then, often, replaced by) spicy Mexican chipotle sauce. The marinade for the meat, meanwhile, remained fairly similar to the Levantine original, heavy with cumin, oregano, and onions. It's hard to say whether the taco was shawarma-fied, or whether the shawarma was taco-fied—that's perhaps an existential question with no real answer—but no matter how you see it, one thing is clear: Tacos árabes would not have come into existence without both the taco and the shawarma existing first.
If my copy of Tacopedia has its history right, this spit-roasting method for tacos árabes eventually made its way to nearby Mexico City, where it evolved into the adobo-rubbed, pineapple-topped al pastor tacos we all know and love. Let's all say a collective thank you to tacos árabes for that.
Visit Puebla today and you'll find all manner of tacos árabes. Many still use the classic cumin- and oregano-marinated pork for the filling, but some fill the pan árabe (that'd be pita bread) with adobo-tinged al pastor meat instead. (Lots of places offer both, and you can choose between them.) Not even the pita, which one might assume to be a key defining characteristic of tacos árabes, is sacred: Some tacos árabes vendors use Mexican flour tortillas instead.
The beauty of the pita, though, aside from the fact that it maintains a clear link to the dish's Middle Eastern origins, is that it's one of the greatest solutions to the crappy-tortilla problem that plagues so many of us outside of Mexico. I, for instance, live in Jackson Heights, Queens, a neighborhood with a rock-solid Mexican population and dozens of Mexican restaurants and grocers. And yet I can't find a single damned good tortilla anywhere. Tacos árabes allow those of us who live in tortilla deserts to say, F*#k it, I'm gonna use some decent pita bread instead—and my tacos won't be any less Mexican for it.
As for the recipe itself, well, it's just one more example of standing on the shoulders of those who have paved the way before us. In this case, I'm referring to Kenji's recipe for making al pastor tacos at home. Since al pastor tacos are just a more famous variation on tacos árabes, the cooking method is identical. And luckily, Kenji spent weeks and weeks perfecting a method that re-creates the spit-roasting process without the need for any kind of spit or vertical roaster. All I had to do was change the flavorings.
The first step is to marinate the meat. You want a fatty, collagen-rich pork cut, such as boneless shoulder or sirloin. Slice it as thinly as you can, then pound those slices even thinner by placing them in a plastic bag and whacking them with a heavy skillet or meat pounder.
Then toss the meat with ground cumin, ground dried oregano (ideally Mexican oregano, if you can find it), salt, lime juice, and thinly sliced onions. The salt, in particular, is important: It alters the protein structure of the meat, much like sausage or ham, giving it a juicy, springy texture that's essential for this kind of spit-roasted meat.
Instead of trying to assemble some kind of mini spit for the meat, Kenji had the brilliant idea to layer it into a loaf pan instead. Alternating the seasoned pork with strips of bacon adds extra fat (and therefore juiciness), along with a smoky flavor that simulates the charcoal-roasted flavor of true spit-roasted meat.
Next, you'll want to let it rest for several hours or overnight, enough time for the salt to really go to work on the meat. Once it's ready, slow-roast it in a low, 275°F oven or on a grill until the center of the loaf is around 180°F.
Now, you'll probably want to dig in right away, but patience is key here: Put the pork loaf back in the fridge and let it fully chill. This will help the meat set, making it easier to thinly slice it. Once it's set, get to work shaving off the thinnest slices you can, then fry them in a cast iron skillet with a generous amount of the rendered fat from the loaf pan.
When it's hot and crispy in spots, it's time to roll it in warm pita and serve it with sauce and lime wedges. I'm giving recipes here for both a Mexican-style chipotle salsa and a Middle Eastern garlic-yogurt sauce. The sauces are great combined on the tacos, the yogurt acting as a cooling salve on that smoky chipotle heat.
One thing to keep in mind about the bread is that the pita usually used in Puebla is relatively thin, making wrapping easier. If your pita is very puffy, you may want to split it in half to form two large, thin pita rounds.
I'll leave you with one final existential thought of which I am certain: You can absolutely make nothing from something. My proof? These tacos, naturally. Just watch how quickly they vanish into thin air.