Thursday, May 21, 2015

Taking on the King of the Street: Tacos al Pastor

Andy opens his taco cart every night when the sun sets, more or less. That's when all the magic starts and the food lovers of San Miguel come out of their nest to get a fast food fix. I know. I am one of them.

Andy knows me by name. I’m one of his best customers. He also knows my secret. I'm passionately addicted to his food and that comes with both benefits and consequences. It’s up to you to determine what they are.

Call me one of Andy’s Taco junkies; he's got plenty of them. Just show up some night to witness the ritual. You’ll have to get in line though. Yep, the end of the line starts way back there. You might as well drop the aggravation and savor the experience. This encounter will change the way you think about street food.

As a food writer, I’m always excited to find a meal for $30 pesos…especially one this good. You’re officially an aficionada when you come here more than once a week.

Unlike the other pastor vendors in town, Andy caramelizes his meat to an almost-crunchy texture. That process makes it picture-perfect when he shaves it off the vertical spit, fries it, splashes it with a somewhat fiery salsa, kisses it with thin slices of pineapple and hands it over with a grin. If you blink twice from the sweet-smelling smoke in your eyes, you'll swear that Elvis is alive and well and living in San Miguel. That's part of the reason you come here.

Andy has a night vibe. Call it a religious experience that happens as it moves toward the midnight hour and now partygoers show up looking for an after-hours feast while still intoxicated by the magic of the fiesta.

I’ve looked for his equal at nearly every place in town including Tacos Mesones and Chilly Willy’s.

Tacos Mesones doesn’t fire their meat long enough to get that mandatory char and when Chilly Willy’s pointed to a bowl of canned pineapple after I asked where the fruit was, I threw up my hands and declared the competition over. It was never really a close contest to begin with.

Local chef Michael Coon recently sent me the recipe for Andy's Tacos al Pastor that was published in the Wall Street Journal last year along with a wonderful article written by Nani Power. In 2014, Nani moved to San Miguel for the summer with her teenage son. He was craving Big Macs, chips and junk food until he discovered Andy’s Tacos al Pastor. They became her son’s new favorite fast food and it brokered a rapprochement between them. 

Tacos al Pastor has always been one of my favorite foods and triggers a memory in me of what it was like to bring a teenage son to Mexico for the summer. For that reason alone, it will always be a comfort food. It was also one of my favorite feeds every Sunday morning at Rubi’s in Chicago’s Maxwell Street Market.

I took on the challenge of the recipe but when I got around to actually making it, I was in for a big surprise. It was a lot of work.

I know you are looking at the recipe right now saying it’s far too time-consuming and complex to even think about making. You’re right. It is. Who would go to all this trouble when you can walk down the street and get one for 10 pesos but the thought of finally knocking off my favorite street food recipe was just too tempting. I was in.

Believe me when I say there are no shortcuts to this flavor. For all of the hours I boiled, cooked, blended and BBQed, I swore I would only make it once. 

I even tried another Tacos al Pastor recipe from Food and Wine Magazine and Paul Kahan of Big Star restaurant in Chicago. It had plenty of short cuts. This recipe used more spices, orange juice, coca cola and also guajillo chilies. You microwave the chilies and cook it a shorter time, finally grilling it over a moderate instead of medium-high heat.

This is when I discovered that when it comes to flavor, there are no shortcuts. The recipe was good but it wasn’t Andy’s.

When I finally sat down to the fruit of my labor and took one bite of the WSJ recipe, it erased every bad memory and word I used in the process to make it.

This was the best Tacos al Pastor I had eaten since my trip to Andy's last night.

The recipe for six was instantly demolished by me in one sitting and I didn't feel the least bit guilty. In fact, all I could think about was who I was going to make it for tomorrow night

Buen Apetito! 

Andy's Tacos Al Pastor Recipe
Active Time: 30 minutes Total Time: 6 hours 
Serves: 6

For the pork al pastor: 

2 cups water
5 dried ancho chilies
1 teaspoon cumin seeds, toasted
3 whole cloves, toasted
1 dried chipotle pepper
3 cloves garlic
2 teaspoons sea salt
1 tablespoon achiote or annatto paste (available at Latin American markets)
1 teaspoon sugar
¼ cup white vinegar
1 medium tomato
3 ounces pineapple juice
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon oregano
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 pounds boneless pork butt, sliced ¼-inch thick
½ pound salt pork, rind removed and sliced ¼-inch thick
¾ cup chicken broth
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
1/2 chopped white onion

Make pork marinade: 
Bring 2 cups water and ancho chilies to a simmer in a covered sauce pan over medium heat. Simmer until soft, 15 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool. Once cool, drain chilies, reserving cooking liquid. 

Remove stems and seeds from chilies and place in blender along with cooking liquid, RESERVING ½ CUP OF THE LIQUID. 

Add cumin, cloves, chipotle, garlic, half the roughly chopped onions, sea salt, achiote, sugar, vinegar, tomato, pineapple juice, soy sauce and oregano to blender and purée until consistency is similar to that of light cake batter.

If too thick, add reserved cooking liquid, 1 tablespoon at a time. I used the entire amount.
Place marinade in a saucepan over medium heat, bring to a simmer and cook for 15 minutes. 

Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature.

Lightly season both sides of pork-butt with salt and pepper.

Cut into 1-inch squares. 

Cut salt-pork slices into 1-inch squares. 

Place pork-butt and salt-pork pieces in a large bowl. 

Add cooled marinade to pork, tossing to coat evenly. 

Cover bowl and chill in refrigerator at least 4 hours and up to overnight. I marinated it overnight.

For the chipotle salsa: 

6 dried chipotle chilies
2 cups water
2 large tomatoes
½ large white onion, quartered
3 garlic cloves, peeled
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
½ teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt

Heat a large frying pan over high heat. Once hot, add chilies to pan and cook until lightly toasted, 2 minutes per side. Add 2 cups water, bring to a simmer and cook until chilies are soft, about 15 minutes. Drain chilies and set aside. 

Reserve cooking liquid. 

Wipe pan clean and set over high heat. Once hot, add tomatoes, onions and garlic, and cook, turning frequently, until lightly charred all over, 10-15 minutes. 

Place softened chilies, charred vegetables and remaining ingredients along with half the reserved cooking liquid in a blender and purée until combined but still slightly chunky. 

Taste and season as needed. I used an additional 1/2 tsp sugar and sprinkled it over top after making to take off a little of the heat.

Set salsa aside and clean the blender. 

To Cook:  

½ pineapple, peeled and core removed, cut into pieces
½ large white onion, cut into 1-inch wedges, for skewers

Thread onion and pineapple on skewers. Brush with oil.

Remove chilled, marinated pork from refrigerator

Thread pork pieces onto 4 long metal skewers. 

Let skewers come to room temperature, 30 minutes. 

Heat a grill to medium-high. Close cover and get the grill really hot. 

Place skewers on grill rotating every 5 minutes, until cooked through, 15 minutes total. 

Remove skewers from grill and let meat rest 10 minutes.

Chop and Fry Pork:

Once pork has rested, remove from skewers and chop into ¼-inch chunks. Heat oil in a large frying pan over high heat, add pork and cook, stirring frequently, until CRISP, 10 minutes.

Warm Tortillas:

Wrap tortillas in paper towels and heat in the microwave for 40 seconds.

Remove tortillas and transfer to a cloth-lined basket and cover.

For the sauce:

In a sauce pan over medium heat, bring reserved marinade and chicken broth to a simmer and cook for 15 minutes.

For the tacos:

12 small corn tortillas
Chopped cilantro, for serving
½ large white onion, finely chopped, for serving
Lime wedges, for serving

To serve:

Place two tablespoons crisped pork in each tortilla.

Drizzle with about ½ teaspoon broth-marinade mixture.

Top with grilled, chopped pineapple. 

Serve with chipotle salsa, cilantro, finely chopped white onions and limes. 

Serve grilled onion quarters on the side.