Sunday, October 4, 2009

Tacos al Pastor (Healthier Version)

My Venture into Shepherd-style Tacos

Tacos al Pastor or Shepherd's Tacos are normally made with pork shoulder. Pork shoulder, although succulent, is not exactly figure-friendly. I decided to make a healthier version of these tacos by using lean pork tenderloin so I could eat them more often without all of the guilt.

The first time I had Tacos al Pastor was on a trip to Mexico that I made with a group of friends when I was in college. Two of the girls I was traveling with, Sarah and Heather, were these Angelina-Jolie-looking things that always attracted the attention of would-be suitors in every place in Mexico we visited. In one town, the three of us were walking down an alley lined with street vendors selling different foods, clothing, perfumes, fake watches, etc. The girls spoke with a slight twang and didn't speak a word of Spanish but still managed to communicate volumes with their big bosoms, fluttering eyelashes, and long, flowing hair.

I stopped at a stall selling something that looked like gyros. I watched them layer pork shoulder bathed in a chili/pineapple concoction on a vertical spit. When they turned it on, it slowly rotated -- cooking the pork with a heating element covering one side of the meat. Once it had cooked a while, the "chef" would shave off the outer edge of the meat and throw it on a grill to crisp up. They then served the meat in tortillas with a variety of toppings from which to choose. I asked the cook (in Spanish) what he was making and he said "Tacos al Pastor." He then went on to explain how they were made. They looked delicious so I, of course, had to buy one. I took one bite and was in heaven!

Meanwhile, Sarah and Heather were at another stall looking at some cosmetics. I don't want to be impolite and say that Sarah and Heather were "ugly Americans." They were a bit culturally insensitive and let's just leave it at that. Since neither of them spoke Spanish, they always spoke English to everybody they approached -- expecting the good people of Mexico to understand what they were saying. Even from a distance, I could hear every word of their conversation because they assumed that, by simply speaking louder, the Mexican shopkeepers would be better able to understand them. Heather was haggling with the cosmetics vendor over a small tube of Bonne Bell Strawberry-flavored Lip Smacker. I, meanwhile, took the opportunity to practice my Spanish with the taco vendor as I ate.

Heather and Sarah shared a fanny pack and they took turns wearing it. Neither liked wearing it because they thought it made them look fat. Trust me. I know how they feel. I look like I have about 20 of them strapped around my stomach and another 10 glued to my backside. That day, Sarah got stuck wearing it. Heather needed some money to pay for the lip gloss so Sarah unbelted the fanny pack, gave it to Heather, and held onto the lip gloss while Heather dug through the fanny pack looking for some spare pesos. For those of you who are from the UK and other parts of the world, a "fanny pack" is a "bum bag." I learned the difference the hard way when I asked a British lady one time where she got such a big fanny pack. I thought she was going to slap me. Anyway, Heather was digging for some pesos in the fanny pack while Sarah was standing there reading the label on the lip gloss. Without warning, a guy standing near them tried to snatch the fanny pack out of Heather's hands. She had a death grip on that thing so he didn't get away with it as easily as he would have liked. Heather put her foot up against his stomach to give her more leverage as they played tug-of-war with the fanny pack. That day, she was wearing cork wedge platform heel shoes that must have come from a stripper store and a very tight miniskirt and so I was shocked she could lift her leg so high with such ease. Sarah, on the other hand, just stood there like a deer in headlights saying "oh, oH, OH!". I had a choice to make. I could drop that heavenly taco and go help OR mind my own business and let the guy get away with a dime-store fanny pack filled with 7 pesos, a used Kleenex, and a year's supply of Kaopectate. The choice was clear. Sarah decided to help by throwing the lip gloss at the guy, which hit him in the chest and conveniently bounced into one of his hands. With one big jerk, he pulled the fanny pack out of Heather's hands and was off in a flash.

Meanwhile, Sarah was continuing to waive her hands in the air and screaming "oh, oH, OH!". Heather screamed "POLICIO! POLICIO!" and the cosmetics vendor pointed to a nearby building housing the local police department. Heather and Sarah tore off for the police station in a flash and I reluctantly followed – taco in-hand, of course.

When we got into the station, Heather ran up to the front desk and rang the bell, like, 40 times. A portly, older gentleman came to the counter and the conversation went something like this:

HEATHER: Oh my God! I just got mugged! He got all of our money!
SARAH: And some Bonne Bell Lip Smacker. Strawberry-flavored. It was brand new – you can ask that one guy. He'll vouch for us.
HEATHER: Who cares about the lip gloss?! My purse was my stolen!
SARAH: Well, actually, it was your fanny pack. You left your purse at the hotel.
HEATHER: WHATEVER! [Directing her attention back to the police guy] OK, it was a Mexican guy. He was wearing a red shirt with…
SARAH: It was more like cranberry.
HEATHER: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Cranberry. A cranberry-colored shirt with blue jeans. He was, like, 5' 6" tall and had…
SARAH: No, I think he was a little taller than that. I'm 5' 6" so I'm thinking he's maybe 5' 8" or so.
HEATHER: OK, whatever. He was a short, Mexican guy. Anyway, he ran that way [pointing], you know, near that tack-o stand over there.

Meanwhile, I continued to eat my taco while staring at this mean-looking cat on the front counter that looked like he was just seconds away from mauling me. I tried to put some distance between me and the attack cat and accidentally bumped into Heather – causing some of the meat from my taco to fall onto her stripper shoes. I was so annoyed with myself for being so clumsy. After all, I wanted to eat EVERY morsel of that wonderful taco meat. Hmmm, I wonder if the 5-second rule would have applied in Mexico, too? Anyway, I digress…

HEATHER: Will you stop eating that STUPID tack-o and DO SOMETHING?!
VINCE: [With my mouth full] Wellth, whath do yous wanth ME to do?

Heather started sobbing, angrily flicked the taco meat off of her foot, and turned her attention back to the police guy.

HEATHER: [Slapping her hands on a tablet on the counter] WHY AREN'T YOU WRITING ANY OF THIS DOWN?!
POLICE GUY: Uuuuuuhhh, no Eeenglish. You espeak espanish?

I almost choked on my taco.

Heather, Sarah, and I eventually lost touch but I still have vivid memories of that day. It was the day I fell in love with Tacos al Pastor. This version is much healthier – but is still very tasty. It is SO good. Enjoy – and happy shepherding!

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Tacos al Pastor (Healthier Version)
(Printable Version)

8 Dried New Mexico Chilis (or a more traditional mixture of guajillo and pasilla chilis)
Water for steeping the chilis
1 large onion, roughly chopped
10 cloves garlic
1 TBSP cumin
1 1/2 tsp oregano
1 tsp paprika
2 TBSP kosher salt (or 1 TBSP table salt)
1 chipotle pepper (I normally add 2)
2 TBSP adobo sauce
2 TBSP vinegar
1 1/2 cups fresh pineapple

5 to 6 lbs pork tenderloin
Small tortillas (corn or flour)
Toppings: onions or scallions, limes, sour cream, chopped cilantro, cubed fresh pineapple, sharp cheddar cheese, etc.

De-stem and de-seed the chili peppers. Put the chilis in a saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil and remove the saucepan from the heat. Let the chilis steep in the hot water for about 25 minutes.

While the chilis are steeping, prepare the other ingredients and add them to a bowl. This includes roughly cutting up the onion, garlic, and pineapple as well as measuring out the other ingredients for the marinade.

When the chilis have steeped for about 25 minutes, remove the chilis from the water and add the chilis to a blender. Add about 1/2 cup of the steeping water to the blender as well to make it easier to puree the chilis. Discard the remaining steeping water. Fully puree the chilis. Using a fine-mesh strainer, strain the pureed chilis into a large bowl – pushing and scraping the chilis through the strainer. Discard the skins and solids that will not go through the strainer.

Add the remaining marinade ingredients to the blender and fully puree. Add the puree to the bowl with the strained chilis (no need to strain the other ingredients). Stir to combine, cover, and refrigerate about 1 hour.

Remove the pork tenderloin from the package and dry it well with paper towels. Remove all excess fat and silver skin. Cut the tenderloin lengthwise into 4 long pieces. Pour a little of the chilled marinade to coat the bottom of a 9x13" glass dish. Add the meat to the glass dish and cover with the remaining marinade. Make sure all of the pieces are fully coated in the marinade then cover and refrigerate about 1 1/2 hours. Do not marinate longer than 1 1/2 hours or the enzymes in the pineapple will start breaking down the meat.

About 20 minutes before the meat has finished marinating, take the meat out of the refrigerator to take the chill off. Start preheating your oven at 425F. Cover a rimmed sheet pan with aluminum foil then place an oven-safe rack in the sheet pan.

When the pork has finished marinating, place the pork on the rack. Make sure the top of the pork has nice, even layer of the marinade (discard any remaining marinade left in the glass dish). Place the sheet pan in the oven and pour about 1 cup of water into the sheet pan. Bake the pork for roughly 25 to 30 minutes or until the internal temperature of the pork has reached 160F. The cooking time is only a rough guide. Tent the pork and allow it to rest for 15 minutes before cutting.

Cut the pork into small, bite-size pieces. At this point, the meat may be refrigerated and the meat will taste even better the next day. This is especially nice if you are having a dinner party because you can cook the meat the day before.

To make the tacos, heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add about 1 TBSP of oil to the skillet. When the oil is hot, add a single layer of meat to skillet (don't overcrowd the meat). Don't move the meat because you want to develop a nice, brown sear on one side. Once seared, serve on warmed tortillas with an assortment of toppings. This preparation has significantly less fat than when prepared with traditional pork shoulder so eat it without the guilt.


  1. Hello Blog Buddies!
    Due to a known problem with the blogging software I use on this website, you may get an error when you attempt to post a comment. If you try to leave a comment and get an error, simply click the "Post Comment" button again. It should work after clicking the "Post Comment" button one or two additional times.

  2. Hi Vince,
    Great post - you really had me cracking up. As an English language teacher, I can definitely relate to the 'ugly' Americans and the fanny pack / bum bag scenario...
    Looking forward to reading the next one...


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