Tacos al pastor translates to “tacos in the style of the shepherd.” The spit-roasted pork found its way to Mexico via Lebanese immigrants and their shawarma. To that end, real al pastor is made on a giant vertical spit the same way that lamb on your doner kebab or gyro is cooked. Oh, you don’t have a giant vertical trompo at home for spit roasting meat? Don’t worry, I live in NYC, so I definitely don’t have space for one of those (nor a full-sized oven). Which means if I want al pastor, I used to have to go out and get it, and let’s be real, Mexican food in my part of Manhattan is either not good or overly priced. But not anymore. While it’s not quite the same level of magic from a truly well-done traditionally cooked al pastor, it’s magical enough to make people at your next cookout say “ommmmyfmmmmginggoooooooooooood!” (That’s the sound of a happy full mouth.)
We’re using pork butt here, but not just any pork butt. You’re going to want to find a good butcher and make a special request, because we just want the coppa from the center of the butt. Did you recognize that word? That’s because this is the piece that coppa ham (a.k.a. capicola) is made from, and if your butcher does it right, it will have the very distinct marbling you see in every coppa ham. This muscle is actually an extension of the loin the comes up through the shoulder of the pig, so it’s a little more tender than the rest of the butt (which comes from the shoulder; I know, it’s sort of confusing). If you can’t find a butcher who can help you with this, you can use a regular pork butt, which should have at least some of the coppa muscle in it.
If you’re wondering if I was a butcher in a past life, the answer is no, but I learned quite a bit from a pig butchering demo I went to at The Brooklyn Kitchen; I highly recommend classes there if you’re in the area, and you can find that coppa cut there. In Manhattan, I recommend the new Upper East Side location of extra-high quality butcher house Fleishers. Wherever you source your pork, definitely call ahead to make sure they have what you’re looking for.
Now, I know what some of you are thinking right now: “This guy is an idiot. Pork butt needs to be cooked low and slow because of all that connective tissue. Everybody knows that.” To some degree, you are right; that is the standard thinking. But also, you are totally wrong and here’s where I get to slap you with science and say “No. You sir, are
the idiot wrong.” The first thing we’re doing is slicing the butt thinly, which cuts down on the cooking time needed to break down the connective tissues, since the heat doesn’t have to penetrate all the way into that dense butt (go ahead, laugh it out). Second, we’re marinating this in pineapple juice, and there’s an an enzyme in pineapple that helps naturally tenderize it. Finally, if you are able to get the coppa cut of the butt, it’s technically a different muscle from the rest of the butt, and is a bit more tender on its own already. You will be surprised at how well this works.
- 2 pounds coppa pork butt, sliced 1/2-inch thick (you can ask your butcher to cut it for you)
- 1 small can chipotle peppers in adobo sauce
- 1 cup pineapple juice
- 1 tablespoon chili powder
- 1 tablespoon ground cumin
- 2 tablespoons brown sugar
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 whole pineapple, peeled, cored and cut into 4 spears
For the pork
Combine all ingredients except for pork and pineapple spears, and mix very well. Put the pork in a gallon plastic bag, and add the marinade.
Mix the marinade around well so that all external pork surfaces are coated. Squeeze the air out of the bag, seal and put in the fridge to marinate for 4-6 hours. Make sure you move your pieces around a bit a couple times during the marinating process to ensure every piece has a chance to be buried on the bottom of your bag.
Take out of the fridge for 30-60 minutes before cooking, and preheat your grill to medium heat.
Cook on a grill over medium heat until nicely charred and cooked through, about 15-20 minutes (time will vary depending on your grill); when I say cooked through I'm really aiming for medium, and if you see a little pink in the middle, don't worry, eat it!
Remove pork from the grill, and let rest 10 minutes.
While the pork is resting, crank the heat to high, and cook the pineapple spears for 3-5 minutes, or just until charred a bit on the outside.
Chop up the pork and pineapple into taco-sized bits, and serve together on warm tortillas with hot sauce, chopped onions and cilantro.