It’s an iconic image: a man with a large knife shaving thin strips of meat off a rotating vertical spit. Only, this is not about shawarma, and the photo wasn’t shot in Beirut. Nor is it döner kebab in Istanbul or gyros in Athens. No, this is tacos al pastor, a Mexican specialty consisting of spit-grilled pork marinated in a combination of dried chiles, achiote, spices and pineapple cooked slowly over a gas flame on a vertical-rotisserie setup called a trompo (a “spinning top”).
This may sound a bit like shawarma, and it is. The blood lines of al pastor run directly back to Lebanese immigrants who brought the dish with them to the Yucatan. While the Mexico City chain El Tizoncito claims to have invented al pastor about 30 years ago, its origins trace back to multiple waves of Lebanese immigration to Mexico as long ago as the late 19th century. As shawarma morphed into al pastor—which translates as “shepherd’s tacos”—the lamb was replaced by pork and indigenous Mexican flavors took over from the Middle Eastern originals.
One of the best places to try al pastor in San Diego County is at Tacos El Gordo (689 H St. in Chula Vista). This local branch of a Tijuana taco shop occupies a converted Pizza Hut just east of the H Street exit off Interstate 5. Ordering at El Gordo can be a bit confusing; there are multiple queues corresponding to multiple stations, each with different fillings.
The best bet is the line on the right: tacos de adobada, El Gordo’s version of al pastor. As the pineapple-topped trompo spins, the server slices meat, dropping it into a paper sheet as a brief stopover on the way to a corn tortilla that was freshly made by a woman at a neighboring station. The meat’s served in those still-warm tortillas with bits of fresh white onion, flecks of cilantro and a pale green sauce that sits halfway between crema and the familiar guacamole. The adobada meat has a deep, full flavor with hints of spice (the chile marinade), sweetness (the pineapple), crispy texture and caramelized flavors (the trompo) and a pinkish hue (the achiote). It plays like a cross between shawarma and Chinese char siu. It’s habit-forming.
There are other forays into the world of Tijuana street tacos worth making at El Gordo. Thenopales (cactus) tacos are fresh, toothsome and entirely unlike the limp stuff that comes out of cans in the “Mexican” aisle at the supermarket. The carne asada—both tacos and tostadas—is tasty but not exceptional. One of the best options for the adventurous is the tacos de buche: pork-stomach tacos. Richer and both more tender and flavorful than beef tripe, the buche have the unmistakable mineral-like flavor of organ meat but are sweeter and meatier than most offal.
For sure, though, the draw at El Gordo is the al pastor. That rotating top-shaped mass of meat, the drama of the dude shaving strips off of it, the resulting taco featuring earthy, savory, spicy and sweet flavors: These are the reasons to head to Chula Vista.