At long last, Pittsburgh has proper tacos al pastor, courtesy el Pastorcito.
The Mexican staple is a simple, mouthwatering thing. Tender slices of spit-roasted pork meet pineapple, onion, cilantro and homemade salsa atop a fresh tortilla.
What distinguishes an authentic al pastor from the wannabes is the vertical spit on which the pork is cooked, just like a shawarma, or gyro. Thin layers of pork are stacked high and rotate as they cook, lightly crisping the outside while the middle stays tender, cooking as it rotates. The taquero carves tender slices of pork right off the spit each time an order is placed.
“That’s the way you gotta make al pastor,” says Puebla, Mexico native, Jose Tecuanhuehue. He, wife Bernice Mariche Reyes, and their three children, ages 13, 11 and 7, started their Taqueria el Pastorcito mobile food trailer in August after COVID-19 scuttled plans to open in the spring of 2020.
This manner of cooking al pastor was adopted from Lebanese immigrants in the city of Puebla around 1900. The method demands a certain number of taco-hungry foot traffic to be cost-effective, hence its popularity on the streets in places like Mexico City, and absence in Pittsburgh.
The name for the meat on the spit is trompo, or “top,” for its spinning, top-like appearance. Tecuanhuehue’s trompo weighs in at 28 pounds. He marinades each one for 12 hours with guajillo and other chili peppers and spices before placing it on the spit to cook before service begins.
More than al pastor
Pastorcito offers more than al pastor. The pork carnitas are exquisitely tender; chori-pollo and campechano are a combination of chorizo with chicken and chorizo with steak, respectively, and are fit for either a taco or quesadilla. For a side, check out the street corn, or elotes: roasted kernels with cotija cheese, powdered chili and crema.
Jose learned to cook in Mexico City. His father sold flowers in Mercado Jamaica, Mexico City’s enormous flower market, and Jose would sneak off to a friend’s family’s food stall to watch how it was done. He’s worked in kitchens in Pittsburgh for more than 20 years before taking on this deeply personal venture.
For now, they use fresh, white corn tortillas for their tacos, with the intention to move to homemade. The salas are homemade fresh every day: The green in the “verde” comes from tomatillos and checks in around a “medium;” the red is full-blown picante.
“I was surprised how many Americans like spicy salsa,” Tecuanhuehue says. Another of his homemade garnishes combines sliced, roasted habaneros with onion, and has become a favorite that regulars ask for specifically.
When they have the time, el Pastorcito makes one-off menu items, like white chili chicken, or specialty burritos. Plans to expand depend on getting a larger truck one day but could grow to include tortas, tlayudas, and Oaxacan tamales, cooked inside a banana leaf.
“I want to bring authentic, real Mexican street food to Pittsburgh,” he said. “That’s what’s most important to me.”