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What About those Pastor Tacos?

Five great places to eat them in Milwaukee

Nov. 30, 2016
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What can the pastor taco teach us about unity? About co-existence? About America in the hostility-bred division of our country’s supposed ideals and where we’re headed? That paradigm of pork, the litmus test of any self-respecting taqueria, a shredded, seasoned shard of salsa-drizzled pig perfection inside mankind’s greatest meat delivery system. It’s lunch. And surely no lesson, no greater schooling lives within the meaty folds to show us how to be better human beings.

But consider the history of the taco al pastor, or “shepherd’s taco.” As the Ottoman Empire crumbled in the late 19th century, waves of Middle Easterners set out for sunnier pastures, many settling in Mexico, bringing with them their perfected spit-roasted meat methods. There was the Turkish doner kebab, the Greek gyro. But it was the Lebanese, specifically, settling around Puebla and other Central Mexican towns, who started slinging shawarma. Their lamb preference eventually yielded to the more native pork, their Arabic bread eventually gave way to tortillas, the spice mix slowly turned toward a Mexican chile marinade heavy on achiote or adobo deep with smokiness.

But at the heart of it all was the never-changing cooking method - the spinning top, the “trompo,” the Hammond B3 organ of the culinary world, the pig-pivoting beacon, the pedestal behind which every great taquero presents, slicing from the top and theatrically snagging falling meat in a tortilla. This vertical spit turns eternally, fat and meat juice dripping down the meat stack, basting while crisping, bathing while firing. To boot, somebody somewhere along the line, in an act lost to history, thought to add a pineapple to the fray, perching a wedge atop the meat, where it drizzles acidity and a certain tropical otherness.      

So there you have it, in a nutshell, or rather, in a warmed corn shell: acceptance, embrace, adaptation, synergy, assimilation, a bit of mystery, and pork - cooking slow, then cascading with every order toward a carb holder and utter satisfaction. A delicious reminder of how we’re better as one, how we’re not so different, how multicultural meat-firing methods provide the actual spice of life: an already great culinary people welcoming another, becoming even more tremendous in the process.

But when you go and elect a living, breathing Comments Section to lead a nation, to put little man hands all over the wooden spoon stirring our melting pot, it might soon become easy to forget. To lose our values and cultural calorie concerns. To become distracted, scared. It’s more important now than ever, to remember: One can prod and meddle, they can change our immigration policies, but they can't take our appetites. And anyway, we all only have so many choices, control, over so few things in this world. It’s best to make each taco, each taco transaction count.  

5. Cielito Lindo

739 S. 2nd St.

Part of the fun of the Walker’s Point mainstay is the inconsistency. Sometimes the pasty tomato table salsa is a bit bland, sometimes just-right salty, sometimes the squirt tube sauce is surprisingly spicy, and sometimes you need the green Yucateco helpfully situated on every table. And the same applies to the meat - which is why the best way to appreciate a lunch plate of pastor is to order “extra crispy,” or crujiente if you want to impress the waitress. From there you can build your own tacos from the little mound of meat. The crispy-tender-grease trifecta comes through in near every sliced scrap: flattop blackened outside, dark red hue of strong seasoning, blood-like grease drippage out the end of the tortilla. And there in the back of the tongue, just a quiet quaff of pineapple.   

Of course mid-bite flavor contemplation is about time, as it often feels today, to face another of those “this is our world” moments: This pastor isn’t from a trompo. In fact, most joints don’t have a trompo - the electric often doesn’t get hot enough and the gas is expensive to maintain. There’s also the whole health code hoop such a contraption entails. And such is life and the act of rolling with the punches, seasoning your pork just so, crisping enough on the flattop, lovingly approaching the ideal like you might copy grandma’s recipe when she never wrote anything down. Here they make a baseline pastor, a very solid status quo. 

And somehow, this all feels beside the point. Cielito is a colorful, late-hour spot, containing the last vestiges of a condo-spewing neighborhood’s barrio-dom, and the friendliest waitresses in town. For this alone every meal here can be seen as a statement, an act of arms-open, peaceful defiance—with a savory side of pork. Which is how we prefer our social commentary.    

4. Al Pastor

6200 W. Burnham St.

Read a travel piece on Mexico City and you might think the sprawling burg’s streets are paved with pork. Tales are endless of street trompos and gourmet spit takes and Bourdain-approved haunts in pastor’s most natural and native urban setting. West Allis is certainly a ways from the largest metropolitan area in the Western Hemisphere. But the husband and wife team Ricardo Morales and Gudelia Calva bring some of their hometown to a quiet patch of Burnham Street, Calva asserting, assuring us, these are “as close to that taste as possible.” Who are we to argue? Especially with such a smoky spicy meat mouthful.    

These are indeed bigger, floppier tacos, with more noticeably griddled homemade tortillas and more room to fold in the edges so there’s little cubed meat fallout. Said pastor embodies the marinated pork approach, with chipotles and adobo running greasy smoke screens about the tongue, something spicy underneath, it all coalescing into a deep, dark finish, a soulful and earthy profile. Everything can be brightened up with the creamy jalapeno mix or fresh chopped tomato-onion-cilantro bowl that comes with the table chips. And, of course, properly, that big honking heap of pineapple. Here our waitress was careful to make sure we wanted the fruit included, underlining what many American’s might get confused with the likes of the goofy hodgepodgery that is a Hawaiian style pizza. Instead, pork plus pine is about a contrast, a balance - the high falutin foodie fare of the blog and small plate world. But, no matter what, pastor is most itself as a sort of street snack. And here is a defining characteristic of what makes Mexican food the height of culinary achievement - it exists in a place that is endlessly complex, elaborate, and is still always of the people.       

Calva did profess hopes for a real trompo one day, while looking dreamily into the distance like recalling a long gone family member, a previous world. Which is part of what makes eating here an act of dream support. And not just for the proprietors. 

3. Los Gallos

1800 S. 13th St.

With two taquerias plus an El Rey on one side, the Puerto Rican flag-flying Borincana on the other, and the seafood specializing El Local around the corner, one might need an insider tip to properly negotiate the roughhewn grilled meat streets around 13th and Burnham. Luckily, we found such a scoop from our waitress on this list’s #1 spot. In an act of non-competitive, communal teamwork, she led us to to this bright-lit sliver, a tiny Mexican version of a greasy spoon, and the first on our list to proudly present a trompo - prominent, visible and warmly calling even a on a quick  pass by. At least for those of us who equate the term “window shopping” with such pork porn.    

Inside is a family affair, the big man behind the counter dictating proceedings with his metal spatulas, every guy walking through the door greeted as a jovial jefe, his kids scampering about and learning the trade in the meantime, busing and watching his inspired grill work, taking orders and delivering salsas, deferring to their stoic patriarch who never seems to take his eyes from the ever-sizzling meat. The whole thing feels a bit like a Norman Rockwell take of the 2016 south side of Milwaukee, a beautiful caricature of the American dream. 

Back in the tactile world, the counter spots are the best, where you can sit arm’s length from the spinning pork - pineapple on the bottom, onion on the top, the boss slicing and dicing and making everything right, roasting pig smell steaming through the air. Chorizo may actually be the real star here, red and black, crumbly, equal parts crisp and greasy, but that synthesis between Portuguese and Spanish and Mexican is for a different article. And the pastor is certainly pilgrimage-worthy in itself: with an extra crispy finish, each bite ends in bacon-like satisfaction. There is diced pineapple, and a spicy marinade, leaving each steaming morsel saucy and zesty enough on it’s own, there being almost no need for the chipotle salsa. But it is there, along with its jalapeno brother. Easy to overlook, yet holding everything together. Such is the restaurant itself, existing on the fringes of most city folks’ reality, somehow warmer and better than the spots everybody takes the time to write or rave or Yelp about. “How Many For You” the tiny spot’s banner exclaims, curiously sans question mark. And that somehow seems to say nothing and everything at once.               

2.  El Comedor

1039 W. National Ave. 

Based on the somewhat rote asada, weakish table salsa, and cheap seeming chips, it’d be easy to chock this spot up as an also-ran on any Milwaukee Mexican food list. But if you’re lucky enough to be catching the MCTS 23 line at National and 11th, you might have a few extra seconds to note the painted signage on the side of El Comedor: a beautiful brown beacon, still, but seemingly primed for a spin move, a slab of stacked meat, colorfully warming and readying for its afterlife’s work next to a soft orange glow.   

It’s an inspired, enticing likeness. Yet inside the trompo itself is hidden back behind the scenes, out of sight behind the counter and the tortilla maker. So eaters are left amidst the high ceiling and cream city brick and dubbed-to-Spanish “Deadliest Catch” to mindlessly chomp chips and fumble through the minimal English order process like it was any other weekday taqueria lunch. But then there they are: double corn tortillas, filled fully, lovingly, steaming, tiny salty pork pieces with a slightly saucy finish and beginning of a black char. They are presented with pride, onion lending a crisp, bountiful cilantro making it gardeny, lime punching everything to life along with tiny bursting bits of chopped pineapple. There’s minimal grease to the evenly brown bits, and a depth of character from the low and slow methodology of the trompo that makes one think maybe all those barbecue nerds are indeed onto something. It’s then you might realize the table salsa was but part of a routine, because with plate delivery there come two new bottles, one fresh and green, one red peppery and piquant and adobe-tinged. And with each spicy, smoky bite you might begin to wonder. What else have they got back there? How many times have I passed this spot without a second thought? Just how many places and pleasures are we all missing in Milwaukee when we settle on Conejitos, again? 

1. Los Gemelos

1116 W. Historic Mitchell St.

Upon hearing we were here for the trompo, upon informing us the trompo wasn’t in service today, upon realizing we would be leaving to try again, another time, the waitress stopped us with her hands: “No, no I’m going to make you one. It’s just as good. You’ll see.” This was leveled with that kind of grandmotherly insistence, where she informs you you need to eat, and there’s no suggestion about it, even less hope of successful protest. Over our gratis saucy pork sample, we became befuddled. Where else in today’s epoch of mean meme’s and Facebook reality bubbles, in an era of haughty approaches to privileged-people food, might we experience such downhome, unwarranted inclusiveness?    

In the end, she wasn’t wrong, but she wasn’t exactly right either. The next day’s trompo pastor was different - fleshy, pink and red toward the edges, drier and crisper and saltier, with hints of something vaguely Middle Eastern, underscoring the roots, separating it from everywhere else in town. It was indicative of a rather rare Mexican food feature: a unique menu, with the likes of alambres, gringas, campechanos (we don’t know either). Then there was the shockingly non-greasy chorizo, and a beautifully rendered, tender and moist arrachera - a cut so often reeking of ordinary among so many taquerias. And really, you could put overcooked, two-day-old Thanksgiving turkey on these tortillas and find satisfaction, given the quintessential tag teamery of the salsas. There’s the red-hot habanero emulsification, full of zing and slightly smoky depth, alongside a vastly cooling, creamy jalapeno-avocado number. It’s simply the best salsa duo in town, the Giannis-Jabari of table sauces.   

In its nondescript home on Mitchell and 11th, with a low-slung ceiling, carpeting, cooler of beer and dated TVs, it has the feel of your friend’s basement that is in a perpetual state of half-finished. If your friend has a hidden away trompo, that he fires up, “maybe once a week,” as the proprietor informed us, coming out to ask how we found out about his joint, smiling proudly that we even knew where his home state of Oaxaca was.   

Trying for a word of Spanish or two, waiting for our order of salsa to go, it was nice to feel connected, to close our Facebook app for a second and to actually remember again that we’re all in this together. To remember it’s still possible, with the right mindset, to get lost and again be found in our own city. To get outside normalcy and our favorite joints and the whatever-ness of mainstream spots like Corazon—To explore geography and culture, to build bridges and not walls, to help each other along on this journey. Because every big tip is an act of community, and every Mexican-owned business order is an act of quiet opposition. And besides, tacos always trump all, the hate and suspicion and the philosophical quandaries that are veiled as “political activity.” And we assured him of our pleasure, and that we’d be back. Because we're all in this together. And we're certainly not just talking about lunch.


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