Investigating the Promise of Real Al Pastor at Mazamitla and El Burrito Amigo
One of the hard things about finding good Mexican food is that signs typically promise things that are not literally true. The sign says "Taco al carbon," but the chicken or steak cooks over a gas grill, not literal charcoal. The outside promises a pastor cone, but then all they do is grill marinated pork on a flat top. Maybe it's no more deceptive to them than "Italian beef" is to gringos—it means a style, not literally beef from Italy. I don't know, but whenever I see a picture of a pastor cone or a flaming grill on a restaurant's exterior, I'm intrigued, but I'm not believing it till I see it for myself.
A couple of Saturdays ago I discovered yet another wrinkle to this conundrum. A new restaurant on Belmont called Restaurant Mazamitla advertised both flames and pastor on the cone or trompo.
I went inside, but the kitchen was out of view of the dining room, so I couldn't tell. I ordered a taco al pastor and a carne asada taco; my son, who has his own very particular ideas of Mexican food, ordered two plain quesadillas.
It was good looking stuff—the quesadillas were handmade; the pastor looked obviously from a trompo, it had the shape of layers of pork shaved off the cone and seared on one side.
And it tasted good (the pastor noticeably better than the carne asada; the handmade quesadillas best of all). But I had to know, was it really from a cone? I used going to the bathroom as an excuse to peer into the kitchen. Sure enough, there was a trompo... with not a speck of food on it. Shimmering clean stainless steel, and nothing more.
I asked if they used the cone. Yes, they said. I asked, so where's the meat? They said, they cook it in the morning, shave it off the cone and hold it till it's time to reheat it on the grill. Really? But as I thought about it, that made sense in terms of the meat I'd eaten—and in terms of a busy lunch rush, too. You often see comments on places like LTHForum about how you have to go to a pastor place at a certain time to get the meat cooked just right; when it's too busy, there's obvious temptation to trim it before it's crisped up. Hard to wait for something to slowly rotate and broil in a short order situation like that. So here was the logical solution—crisp it just right when you had plenty of time in the morning, then reheat to order. You couldn't argue with the quality of the results.
Later that day I happened to see another promise of pastor further to the west, at a stand called El Burrito Amigo. Here was a picture of a cook carving off a pastor cone the size of a walrus:
Now that was an ironclad promise, right? There has to be real pastor inside:
Well, there's a real trompo, for sure—as empty as the other one. And below it, I could see a bin of cooked pastor, as if shaved off the trompo earlier in the day, the clearest evidence yet that Mazamitla's claim was in fact standard practice.
The taco I got—a little more flavorfully seasoned, but a little less char and obviously cheaper pork; priced at under a dollar—sure seemed to have been cooked on a cone earlier in the day.
So apparently that's a thing Mexican restaurants do, at least on busy Saturdays. And on the whole it works, even if you might wish for meat that goes straight from cone to mouth. Operating theory of taco supremacy revised once again by reality: look for the cone before you order pastor, but don't assume the meat actually has to be on it to be good.