Taco Summer

Taco Summer: New-School Al Pastor at Gallo Blanco

Shelby Moore
Al pastor, grilled over a wood fire and then finished in a ripping hot wok, comes together atop tacos, topped with onion, cilantro, and a thin sliver of pineapple.
4. Gallo Blanco

Gallo Blanco, 928 East Pierce Street
Open Since: 2017
Style: Modern
Signature Taco(s): Al Pastor

Chances are, you know and love al pastor, a popular and very flavorful Mexican dish consisting of pork that’s been marinated in a paste of red chili peppers and cooked alongside sweet pineapple, often served in taco form.

And if you’ve been eating it in Phoenix, chances are very likely you’ve enjoying an impostor (albeit, a very delicious impostor).

Al pastor (translating, roughly, to “in the style of the shepherd”) is a dish that the children of Lebanese immigrants, who settled near Mexico City created in the '60s. They used vertical spits they called “trompos,” the kind they’d have used to roast lamb for shawarma back home. But, there in Mexico, they used their trompos to roast pork and pineapple, which caramelized with each rotation, before being shaved off in long, luscious ribbons.

Here are most of the spots across the Valley, that I’m aware of, which serve al pastor de trompo: Tacos Huicho (Midtown), Taquería El Fundador (West Phoenix), Tacos Tijuana (Peoria), Ciro’s Tacos (East Phoenix), Casa Layla (North Phoenix), and El Pastorcito D.F. (Glendale).

If you acquired it elsewhere, it was likely marinated in a similar chili paste, but chopped up and cooked up quickly on a stovetop. Needless to say, the texture and neutral flavor from a gas stovetop are very different than those achieved through slow-roasting, ideally, by a wood fire, and the shape that comes from shaving it off the spit, results in a very different dish.

click to enlarge The marinated pork is par-cooked on a wood-burning grill. - SHELBY MOORE
The marinated pork is par-cooked on a wood-burning grill.
Shelby Moore
Blame the dominance of non-trompo pastor on Phoenix’s lack of density and foot traffic. Al pastor was designed to be shaved and served very quickly from busy carts in Mexico City that often specialized in al pastor alone — and still do. In Phoenix, many trucks and restaurants feel the pressure from customers to serve several meat options regardless of what they would like to specialize in, and few get the kind of foot traffic that’s optimal for cooking al pastor on a vertical roasting spit, where the pork must be cooked and served within a few hours to avoid becoming dry or violating Maricopa County health regulations.

Few can risk the food waste, so few try — electing for a stovetop version that mimics the flavor of the marinade, but little else that defines the dish and makes it unique.
click to enlarge The wok quickly caramelizes the strips of meat from end to end. - SHELBY MOORE
The wok quickly caramelizes the strips of meat from end to end.
Shelby Moore

A couple months ago, a new al pastor option emerged with the reopening of Doug Robson's much-beloved restaurant, Gallo Blanco, in the Garfield neighborhood in Phoenix.

Both of his parents still live in the Mexico City area, where Robson was born and raised, so he knows what a good al pastor should taste like. And as a chef, he has developed a unique way of achieving al pastor flavor and texture, while avoiding the pitfalls of trompo cooking in Phoenix.

Robson first takes pork, marinated in a classic red chili paste, and throws it over a small wood-fired grill. He keeps it there just long enough to give the meat some grill marks and smoky flavor, but not long enough to cook it through. He then cuts the pork into thin, short strips that mimic the shape of the shaved version associated with the vertical spit. Next, he finishes the strips of pork in a ripping hot wok-like pan, where they caramelize from edge to edge.
click to enlarge The al pastor is dished onto tortillas. - SHELBY MOORE
The al pastor is dished onto tortillas.
Shelby Moore

The smoky strips are placed onto small corn tortillas and topped with pineapple.

Food memory is a powerful resource for chefs, and through the wood grill and the wok, Robson has achieved a flavor and texture very close to the al pastor de trompo of his youth, served in a uniquely Phoenix way.

Our Taco Summer picks so far:
50. Taqueria Don Beto
49. Kiss Pollos Estilo Sinaloa
48. Tacos Tijuana
47. El Burrito Grande
46. El Horseshoe Restaurant
45. Tacos Sahuaro
44. El Pollo Correteado
43. Adrian's
42. La Fiesta
41. Taqueria Lucy
40. Tortas Ahogadas George
39. Taqueria El Chino
38. Joe's Tacos
37. Taqueria El Gallo de Lagos
36. Tacos Huicho
35. Puffy Taco Shack
34. Ni De Aqui Ne De Alla
33. Mr. Mesquite
32. Senor Ozzy's
31. Tacos Jalisco
30. Ta'Carbon
29. Taqueria Los Yaquis
28: Helio Basin Brewing
27: Sonora Taco Shop
26: Mercado Y Carniceria Cuernavaca
25. Restaurant Atoyac Estilo Oaxaca
24. Paquime Street Food
23. The Rez
22. Asadero Toro
21. La Frontera 1
20. Taquería Yaqui
19. Presidio Cocina Mexicana
18. Mucha Lucha Taco Shop
17. Casa Reynoso
16. Backyard Taco
15. Taquitos Jalisco
14: Waldo's Tacos
13: Moreno's Mexican Grill
12: Asadero Norte De Sonora
11: Taqueria La Hacienda #1
10. Gadzooks
9. Tacos Chava
8. Tacos Kissi
7. Taqueria El Fundador
6. Cahuamanta El Yaqui
5. Tacos Chiwas