Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Search for Al Pastor Ends in Detroit's Mexicantown

When people ask me what I miss most about Chicago after moving back to Michigan last year, my immediate response is all of the great taquerias around town. I’m not talking about the places open until 4am in Lincoln Park that serve up gigantic burritos, or even the upscale taco joints in places like Wicker Park. I’m talking about the taco counters in the back of the Mexican grocery stores, places that use paddles the size of canoe oars to stir a huge pot of carnitas simmering in lard, places where your order is quantified not by number of tacos, but by pounds of meat. And every once in a while, you’d stumble across the holy grail of Mexican grilled meats – al pastor cooked on the spit. 

To get the distinct smoky and citrusy flavors of al pastor, slices of pork take a bath in a marinade of chiles (guajillo/pasilla/ancho) and pineapple juice, with some garlic and achiote paste thrown in for good measure. The slices of pork are stacked on a vertical spit with hunks of onion intermittently layered in that will melt into the caramelized pork. The spit (or “trompo”) is then topped with a hunk of pineapple.

If this sounds suspiciously familiar to Middle Eastern shawarma with a different flavor profile, you might be on to something. Pastor is Spanish for shepherd, which was the name given to Middle Eastern merchants (primarily from Lebanon and Syria) who immigrated to Mexico in the early 1900s. Where the Middle Eastern immigrants used lamb marinated in herbs for their shawarma, the Mexicans modified the recipe by using local chiles and citrus for the marinade and replacing the lamb with pork.

While most respectable taco joints will serve a version of al pastor, very few actually cook it on the traditional vertical spit. In lieu of the vertical spit, lesser taco establishments toss the marinated pork onto a hot griddle to cook, which lessens charring and depth of flavor. On the spit though, the pork cooks slowly, rendering out its fat, which mingles perfectly with the melting onions, resulting in perfectly charred bits of juicy pork heaven. The pork is shaved off into a corn tortilla along with a couple slices of the pineapple roasting on top of the trompo.

It took me longer than it should have to track down some solid al pastor in Michigan, but the mission ended in the severely underrated culinary destination of Detroit’s Mexicantown on the southwest side. No, you won’t see it on any postcards or a Pure Michigan commercial, but what you’ll find there is a taste of back home for the neighborhood’s predominantly Hispanic community. My search for al pastor led me to Taqueria El Rey on Vernor, the main street in Mexicantown. 

I knew I was in good hands as soon as I stepped out of the car and was hit with the intoxicating smell of grilled meats cooking on the grill in an auxiliary cooking area in the parking lot. Turns out Taqueria El Rey is not a one-hit wonder – in addition to the al pastor, they turn out some pretty fantastic grilled chicken. Cooked over live coals, the full birds are hit with a spicy rub and then take a trip on the grill to cook until the skin gets nice and crispy. If I’m nitpicking, our bird probably stayed on the grill a few minutes too long, but delicious nonetheless. 

Inside, the trompo is on display right next to the counter. El Rey actually has a fairly extensive menu, with a variety of meats for taco, burrito, torta, or tostada toppings, but this was strictly an al pastor affair for me. Mrs. T went with one al pastor taco and one carnitas taco. 

The al pastor was outstanding, exactly as I had hoped, although they lose a tenth of a point for no hunk of pineapple on top of the roasting pork. The carnitas were great as well, slow-cooked to be tender and juicy. I had planned on doing a taco tour of Mexicantown but now I’m not sure I’ll want to go anywhere else. What about you – where are your favorite taco joints?

Taqueria El Rey
4730 W Vernor Hwy
Detroit, MI 48209


  1. No first-hand experience, but I understand the Pontiac/Waterford area has a number of authentic Mexican places that might be worth exploring.

    1. Thanks for the tip, I will look around and see what I can find around there.

    2. yes go to carnival market and restaurant, 1101 e walton blvd. pontiac, mi 48340 248-276-0500