Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Tacos Leo(La Brea and Venice): A Tacos Al Pastor Primer

An exquisite taco al pastor from El Califa, D.F.

Getting excited about finding al pastor on a spit is kind of like saying, “Oh my god, I just found this pizza parlor……with a pizza oven. “ I mean, it’s a cooking device, it's standard and just a means to an end. So, when Chowhounders, Yelpers, or other bloggers start woot-wooting about seeing an al pastor stand or truck with a vertical spit, I don’t exactly snatch my car keys and peel out of my driveway. There’s a little more to the equation and I wish to dispel this tendency to prematurely stir our hungry souls.

Al pastor here in LA is done mostly by amateur taqueros, or guys who had cooked for family barbeques. They aren’t trained, skilled, and are habitually cooking on a flat iron, which is the wrong cooking equipment. Mostly, they aren't even taqueros.

The al pastor specialist is about the loneliest gig in the taco universe. The al pastor guy prepares his marinade, and is the first to arrive to the taqueria, carefully loading the vertical spit, called a trompo. He has his own station off in a corner, isolated. He usually takes direct orders from the customer; the guy behind the counter won’t even take his taco orders. If the customer orders a gringa (flour tortilla with al pastor and cheese), or a mulita (taco sandwich with cheese) requiring his prized al pastor, he will carve off some meat for the main taquero station so they can complete the order, ultimately, the al pastor specialist is confined to cooking the pork for other orders and making tacos al pastor.

A taquero slices and catches bits of pineapple from the trompo in one deft motion at Taqueria El Tizoncito in D.F.

But in the al pastor taquerias of Mexico City these guys are the main attraction, so they get to be part of a team. Otherwise, when part of a taqueria with two or three disciplines, perhaps alongside asada, birria, or even fritanga(fried brisket, chorizo, longaniza and offal is a stainless steel comal), they are isolated.

Taqueros have a type of apprenticeship where young men start out taking orders, cleaning, bringing sodas to tables, and handling money. They then become preps, learn knife skills, learn to prepare meat, make salsas, and to be quick at the craft of tacoing. When that bus pulls up to the stand, or there are 40 customers standing around during the peak afternoon hours, you’d better be able to handle the crush.

The first thing you should look for in an al pastor stand is the trimming of the pork and the appearance of the trompo. There should be manicured rows around the meat. Lumpy, or unevenly cooked pork are signs you’re dealing with an amateur. The spit requires attention, that’s why the al pastor guy is a specialist, which has been the case 100% of the time in the countless al pastor spots I’ve encountered all over Mexico . It is unique to the US that a taquero would prepare asada, offal, al pastor, and other taco disciplines all by himself. These are all separate areas of expertise.

The pork should be quality pork loin, or leg, and the loading of the trompo is very crucial in the cooking process to ensure stability and even roasting.

Al pastor is done with pineapple in Mexico City, and in other areas like Puebla, but although pineapple is a natural match with the roasted pork, it's just a condiment. It need not be present. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. In other parts of Mexico, like Baja California, al pastor is referred to as adobada, but they are the same thing--in Nuevo Leon, it's called tacos de trompo. Regardless of the regional name, it is flame-roasted pork on a vertical spit that's been marinaded in an adobo of dry red chiles(guajillo and or ancho), spices, citrus, herbs, seasonings,vegetables, and achiote paste. The recipe varies from region to region, and from vendor to vendor.

Some use food coloring to get the signature red flavor, some use achiote, some use both and others just feature the natural color of cooked pork.

The fat trompo at Taqueria El Poblano in Loreto, BCS manned by a taquero from Izucar de Matamoros, Puebla represents his countrymen's style of taquero that came to the Baja peninsula and helped develop a local style of adobada

It is also popular in the north to griddle the al pastor or adobada on the flat iron of the trompo because they prefer the pork more crispy. Cooking shouldn’t be finished on the griddle because the pork is still raw, this means you are dealing with an amateur. The griddle is for crisping, nothing more. Your al pastor taquero shouldn’t be dealing with any other meats, nor should he be griddling other meats at his stand.

In Puebla, dual trompos are ready for the hungry afterwork crowd
at Taqueria La Ranas

Your taquero should keep a sharp knife, he is a professional. Knife skills are of the upmost importance in any type of kitchen. Look for speed, precision, uniformity, rhythm, and flair in the carving of the trompo.

The crude mound of earthy red meat stacked on the trompo starts to take form as soon as the spit fires up. The taquero trims around the meat until the pork takes the familiar shape that is a beacon to all taco lovers. This initial cutting of raw pork is sent to the taquero, or taqueros, to cook up for mulitas, quesadillasgringas, vampiros, quesatacos, or any other concoction requiring al pastor. Now the al pastor technician is ready to taco. At this point, all the meat will be carved off of the spit, cooked.

Standard condiments are part of the al pastor experience: lime, onions, cilantro, various salsas, guacamole, and the prized pineapple. The tortilla is made from corn. The condiment station should be clean and the offerings should be fresh and professionally cut. The salsas can be the typical red and green selections, but they shouldn’t be flat--this is another essential skill of the taquero. Look for creativity in salsas and condiments; this is the the mark of a master and a restaurant that takes pride in their work. Some taqueros make only one salsa that they’ve specially paired with their taco and will finish your taco to your liking. Con todo, or with everything, means you’ll receive the taqueros ideal of his perfect taco al pastor. In other cases you’ll complete the taco yourself from a selection of condiments. The experience of the customer is important here--you are now the sous chef to your own taco. Your choice of toppings and proportions can maximize the experience, if you’re not sure, ask the taquero for his recommendations or follow the lead of a customer that knows what they’re doing.

An al pastor specialist loads his trompo in the mid-day solitude at the Leon, Guanajuato Fair, five hours before lines will run 40 deep, and not let up 'til 3AM.

Whether suave, shaved from the trompo directly onto the tortilla, or dorado, sliced then crisped on the griddle, with or without pineapple, it is all al pastor, de trompo or adobada.

Never be passive in ordering tacos. You want a taco, you say, “dame dos taco de pastor”(GIVE me 2 tacos). You don’t want your al pastor griddled? Speak up, you are in charge. Don’t sit there like a deer in the headlights. It’s proper taco etiquette to be assertive and direct.

I had partially given up on finding authentic al pastor in LA when I was reminded about a post on chowhound back in January by the poster known as Wolfgang. I was looking at my blogroll feed and saw a beautiful, sculptured trompo loaded with al pastor on Eat, Drink, and Be Merry’s blog and I thought, wait, I’ve heard about this place before on…….Chowhound. I remember seeing that discussion, but without any photos or any commentary by a trusted al pastor aficionado like my good friend Dommy, of Chowhound and now Squid Ink. I had forgotten about Tacos Leo until Dylan's post surfaced. Oh, Dommy, why didn't you ever go like you said you would?!

Tacos Leo, located in the Union 76 parking lot at La Brea Bl. and Venice Bl. is an authentic representation of al pastor in Los Angeles, and the only one I’ve encountered that has a true specialist.

This is a professional set up. The owner is Raul Martinez Hernandez and his brother, Rafael Martinez, who is manager and cashier. They started their truck back in January of this year. They come from a pueblo (town) in the south-western highlands of Oaxaca called Tamazulapam del Espiritu Santo, where indigenous Mixe people are located. Rafael told me that his native dialect is Mixe. For many indigenous peoples in Mexico, Spanish is a second language, or was learned alongside their native tongue.

The taquero, Norbeto Martinez Castro is also from Oaxaca, but his style of al pastor was honed in the city of Celaya, Guanajuato, where al pastor is also a major part of the local gastronomy. This is in the central lowlands of Mexico known as El Bajio, where they have their own style of al pastor, although it is very similar to the way al pastor is done in Mexico City. Subtle differences in cooking styles for al pastor throughout Mexico aren’t significant, it's more about the differences in condiments and the color like in Acapulco where all of the al pastor is colored bright orange.

Norbeto prepares the al pastor at Tacos Leo, and mans the trompo. He has a younger apprentice that will take over the trompo so Roberto can get a break, but he’s in charge. It is typical in Mexico for a stand, or taqueria to have an owner who hires professional taqueros. There are no trucks in Mexico, and owner/ taquero types are more common in LA. In the world of tacos, there are restaurateurs and chefs, too!

Norbeto has 10 years behind the trompo--not bad--and learned his trade in the taquerias and stands of Guanajuato. He started working at Tacos Leo about three months ago. He has know brought the authentic flavor of Celaya, Guanajuato to the streets of Los Angeles.

The cooking here is excellent, and Norbeto has the moves and skills of a seasoned taquero, maintaining a handsome trompo. They use quality pork leg at this truck, according to Rafael. The proprietary marinade from the owners at Tacos Leo is tasty, and Norbeto's loading and carving technique shows pedigree in the small layered slices of al pastor. There is a touch of theatrics; the flicking pineapple onto the taco from high atop the trompo, which he executes with cool efficiency. His apprentice isn't bad either, taking over the al pastor station while Norbeto takes five.

Al pastor at Tacos Leo before, and...

after the the condiment bar

The condiments are strong, the salsa roja made with a blend of chile de arbol and morita chiles is the standout.There is also a nice salsa verde with tomatillo and serrano chiles, guacamole sauce, onions, cilantro, radishes, and pickled vegetables. Take care to respect the taquero by finishing my taco to enhance the pork flavors, not to drown them.

In addition to the tacos at Leo’s, you can also get mulitas (taco sandwiches), quesadillas, and other bites with this fantastic al pastor. I don't know about Leo's other taqueros for the various meats offered at this truck, but the al pastor is wonderful. It's delicate, juicy, and you get an engaging flavor from the pork. I order them two at a time so I'm able to enjoy them in that marked time between when the taquero hands you your taco to that first splash on your palate when the taco is at its peak. Getting tacos to go is contraindicated. "Two more please!"

These tacos are the real deal, and the first tacos al pastor in Los Angeles that warrant a special trip. They are delicious. There’s so much more to al pastor than just having a vertical spit, and the presence of pineapple. This is a trade. Finally, a real al pastor specialist has arrived in Los Angeles.

Tacos Leo
Located at Venice Bl. and La Brea Bl.
Sun-Thurs 5pm-2am
Fri-Sat 5pm-3am


Josie said...

"10 tacos al pastor, por favor!" Great write-up, kiddo! I can't wait to go. And don't worry - I won't forget to cite my source! OXOXO

Mike said...

Funny - I have almost exactly that same picture from El Tizoncito. Great place to relax, have some food and a few drinks, and watch the taqueros do their thing.

ChowNoir said...

We were at Leo's a couple of weeks ago and I was only going to get a couple to satisfy a late night snack itch. Ended up eating 6 they were so good. I justified it by saying they were on the small side.

ChristianZ said...

I think they might do it like this at El Farolito Jr. in Anaheim.

eastsidefoodbites said...

Great post--I learned a lot.

streetgourmetla said...

Love you Josie, can't wait for you to go!

streetgourmetla said...

Mike-Yes, El Tizoncito is very cool, a great hang, an ice cold Leon, and of course, the tacos. Your picture is almost like mine, great minds shutter alike.

Chow-I like your logic, it's undeniable.

streetgourmetla said...

Christian Z-Most important is the taquero, not the set-up. So, that should be your first inquiry, ha, and of course, is the al pastor good. Even some experienced taqueros can make mediocre al pastor.

ChristianZ said...

Here's one picture of their setup:

Al Pastor Trompo on flickr

Of course, yes, I have to go back and see how they actually prepare it.

streetgourmetla said...

Christian Z-Exactly what I was talking about. Look at the trompo in your picture. It looks like hell. Lumpy! Ugly! You don't need to read every word here, but I've included several pictures of healthy trompos to guide you.If the taquero is for real, the trompo is beautiful.

ChristianZ said...

Kind of left with the usual response: I can't starve myself if the most real manifestation of Mexican food isn't readily available to me relative to where I live. Still good to accumulate information on the subject however.

streetgourmetla said...

Christian Z-You don't have to starve, my brother, eat something else. Manifestation? Haha, hey man, just go try these sometime, enough with taco talk, take a bite!

ChristianZ said...

Apparently nothing in the county I live in qualifies as Mexican. Going to switch to writing a Japanese food blog. Wait, maybe that won't work either. Or maybe it's just hamburgers and hot dogs for me now.

streetgourmetla said...

Christian Z-Gustavo Arellano and also Dave Lieberman of OC Weekly are laying down the great Mexican restaurants, the real deal.

ChristianZ said...

Excellent. I've been to a lot of them. Sometimes before them and sometimes after them. And I'll be watching your blog even closer from now on.

Gastronomer said...

An educational and humorous write up! Thanks, Bill!

streetgourmetla said...

Hey Gastronomer-Welcome. Miss you.

Unknown said...

You definitely dropped some knowledge on me with this post. I have never had al pastor off of one of those rotating spits. I definitely gotta try using pineapple in one of my pork roast.

Stay hungry my friend

Food GPS said...

That pork-packed trompo looks amazing. I can't wait to devour a stack of shavings.

gourmetpigs said...

This post was like the advanced guide to al pastor! Awesome!

Heard on twitter some cops took away Tacos Leo's spit though? Sad if true :/ It's not like there isn't a spit around town, seems weird that he can't have one?

e d b m said...

Bill, great write-up. Your photo of El Tizoncito/El Kalifa is super memorable – Jeni and I had great tacos there. I dream of the "tacos de costilla" still.

Did you read the comments on this posting... http://blogs.laweekly.com/squidink/food-trucks/food-truck-taco-pastor/ ?

streetgourmetla said...

Foodgps-The trompo shall ride again, don't worry.

Gourmetpigs-Yes, the cops took it away, and you're right they're all over town, trompos that is. It's pretty random, in Boyle Heights they'll work free of hassle one week, and the next week the cops are all over them.

It's arbitrary which stand or truck gets harrassed. Anyways, Fuck the Police.

streetgourmetla said...

eeddbbmm-Yeah, I saw the comments in Squid Ink. We don't really know how the police came upon Tacos Leo. Are they food blog readers? Squid Ink?Chowhound? It's not very likely. Could be just the wrong officer at the wrong time.Anyways, I say keep going to Tacos Leo, and support them, they have an al pastor specialist, that's worth more than a trompo run by a hack.

Yes, I know we have these taquerias in common. Dylan, you're one of the guys out there that has a true respect and appreciation of Latin cuisine, and you've made real exploration in Mexico and Brazil.It's great, you're one of the few people in town whose taco posts are legit, Jenny too.