One of my favorite food experiences—or, honestly, one of my favorite experiences, period—is that first bite of a taco al pastor. Specifically from Taqueria Traspasada in Chicago, but we’ve all got our favorite places. You can throw around stuff about textures and contrasts and brightness—I literally just did this myself—but the appeal of tacos al pastor is on a raw, primal level. It’s a Goya painting for the tongue, a Nile Rodgers riff you can stuff into your face. It’s the perfect bite.
If you’re unfamiliar with al pastor, my very good friend and fellow Takeout contributor Jesse Valenciana has you covered. He also acknowledges that most of us don’t own trompos, the vertical rotisserie spits that all your favorite taco stands use. And yet, capturing even a lookalike impression of al pastor is more than enough for us home cooks. Now then, if Jesse’s got you covered for the authentic taste, what am I doing here?
I’m going to teach you how to make tacos al pastor with 7-Eleven/CVS/corner food mart stuff. It won’t be confused with anything you’ll buy at your favorite taco stand, but it’s going to brass-knuckle punch you right in those same dopamine receptors. Al pastor is a dish that’s all the better for the journeys it has made.
Oh, and we’re going to use Spam.
It’s going to be great!
You Can Call Me Al(oha)
Aside from the dried guajillo chile and ground annatto seed, you should be able to snag almost everything in one stop. And shout out to Chui’s Food Store down the street from my house, where I can get everything—everything. Let’s Spam it up.
This recipe is inspired by a day back in 2012 that Jesse and I took off from work to drink beer, listen to Daft Punk, and cook nothing but al pastor all day. Jesse had one request in exchange for giving me a hand: I had to use his recipe title.
- 1 (12-oz.) can Spam, sliced thin
- ½ pineapple or 1 (15-oz.) can pineapple in juice (not syrup), sliced thin
- 4 dried guajillo chiles, stems torn off and seeds discarded
- ½ cup chicken stock or beer
- 6 cloves garlic, skin on
- 1 ripe mango, chopped
- ¼ cup adobo sauce
- ¼ cup cider vinegar
- 2 chipotles in adobo sauce
- 2 Tbsp. ground annatto seed
- 1 tsp. Mexican oregano
- Tortillas, to serve
- Chopped white onion, to serve
- Cilantro, to serve
- Salsa, to serve
- Lime wedges, to serve
Stack alternating slices of Spam and pineapple onto a metal or soaked wooden skewer.
Toast the chiles in a dry skillet until they take on some color and become fragrant. Remove and set aside. Add the garlic to the skillet and toast, turning until the skin is blackened on all sides. Remove the garlic, pop the skins off, and return to the skillet along with the chiles.
Add the beer or chicken stock, bring to a simmer, cover, and turn off the heat. Let the chiles hydrate for 15 minutes.
Pour everything from the skillet into a blender. Add the mango, adobo sauce, chipotles, annatto seed, and oregano and puree. Strain the sauce, taste for seasoning, and adjust with vinegar and/or lime. Try not to add salt because the Spam is going to bring plenty of that to the party.
Brush the al pastor stack with the sauce and reserve the rest for slathering during grilling.
Set a pan in the center of your grill and add a bit of water. Open the bottom grates fully. Light one chimney of charcoal (don’t use lighter fluid) and add equal amounts of charcoal around all four sides of the pan. Replace the grate, scrape and oil, and set your Spam ziggurat over the center of the pan.
Close the lid, leave the grates fully open, and let cook for 20-25 minutes, basting with reserved sauce every 7-10 minutes.
When the pineapple and Spam start to get that good edge char, you can start slicing for tacos. Cut down the sides, just like the real thing!
Pile your Spammy slices onto a warm corn tortilla* and top with onions, cilantro, and your favorite salsa. Squeeze some lime on and you’re ready to go.
*Okay, now that everyone is gone, I need to confess that I also tried flour tortillas. They might, in fact, be preferable if you want a little more chew or a salsa-laden taco. You might give it a shot if you’re feeling daring.