Like so much of culinary history, the origins of the taco al pastor is a journey unto itself. Lebanese migrants began arriving in Mexico at the tail end of the 19th century but a larger influx arrived by the time the Ottoman Empire was collapsing in the early 20th century. They left to escape sectarian violence, elude army conscription and came looking for economic opportunity.
Most came from the Levant, what we now know as Lebanon and Syria.
These people brought with them their culture and their food, making a mark on Mexican cuisine over time. Many settled in Puebla, a colonial city not far from the capital, where they introduced the population to traditional shawarma: trompo spit-roasted lamb served on a flour tortilla or pita bread — also known as pan árabe. But Mexicans don’t tend to favour lamb, so beef was substituted at first.
It would take some time to land on the fully hybridized meal.
As the decades passed a second generation grew to open their own restaurants in the 1960s. These Mexican-born children of Lebanese immigrants evolved the dish bit by bit.
Using the vertical spit technology they were raised with, they traded in the less popular beef for pork, chose tortillas over pan arabé added a red chili achiote paste to replace the original herbs and spices — and thus tacos al pastor were born. Al pastor means “in the style of the shepherd” in recognition of their original Middle Eastern lamb shawarma roots. The small corn tortillas became the perfect taco-stand sized method of delivery for the al pastor pork with grilled pineapple.
Food does morph and travel in the most delightful ways.
In Puebla today, you can still find your tacos al pastor wrapped in pita, and still called tacos árabes. And in some places in northern Mexico, these are usually called tacos de trompo if served on corn tortillas, or nicknamed gringas when served with cheese on flour tortillas.
You can also find them in Guelph, today.
La Reina, lareina519.com, can be found at 10 Wyndham St. N., sitting pretty on a particularly lively corner in Downtown. The restaurant opened in 2018, wanting to offer Guelph something the owners found missing from the culinary landscape — authentic Mexican flavours. Its two patios have been bustling with the arrival of summer and a population eager to get out of their houses.
This is where find people happily devouring their tacos al pastor, undoubtedly one of their most popular items. The La Reina version arrives bearing grilled and shaved pork with house pastor, charred pineapple, avocado salsa, onions, cilantro and lime on a corn tortilla. A nice little bite with big flavour that reflects its journey across the globe.