You want to talk Mexican food classics? Don’t you dare sleep on the “taco al pastor.” The dish is a straight up gem. It may not get the food media love of Baja fish tacos or even the Mission Burrito, but it has every bit as much flavor and history as those two culinary titans. Adopted from the shawarma-style cooking of the Middle East and perfected in the streets of Mexico City, tacos al pastor have hit the US in a big way over the past decade — becoming a favorite at Tex-Mex restaurants and taco stands throughout the southwest, California, and beyond.
A lunchtime staple in Mexico City, the taco al pastor (which translates to “the shepherd’s taco“), is typically made with pork grilled on a vertical spit, resembling a Middle Eastern shawarma (or a Greek gyro). Atop the spit sits a whole pineapple, trickling its sweet-tart juices onto the meat below. This addition came into play at some unknown date, but it makes all the difference in the world — it’s the pineapple’s bright, citrusy flavor that ties the taco together.
When orders come in, the pineapple-infused pork is carved off the spit in thin slices. It’s then served with diced onions and cilantro in a corn tortilla. As with any iconic dish, there are endless variations — especially in Austin, Texas, where al pastor abounds. Having eaten my way through the city five times over, I knew that every restaurant had its own unique spin on the favorite. So, invigorated with purpose, I spent a solid week going from place to place around my neighborhood (and a bit beyond for good measure), to find what I considered to be the perfect tacos al pastor.
13. El Borrego De Oro
A great hole-in-the-wall tucked away on the ever-gentrifying South Congress Avenue, El Borrego de Oro is known for their thoroughly authentic Tex-Mex offerings, with their enchiladas standing out as a popular favorite. Their al pastor, unfortunately, ends up falling a little short. It’s more of a pork stew wrapped in a tortilla, and lacks any semblance of pineapple flavor, though it did come garnished with the customary diced onions and cilantro. On the upside, the meat itself was fall-apart tender, and quite delicious in its own right, but without any pineapple it ends up last on my list.
12. Habanero Mexican Cafe
This little family-owned cafe has been one of my go-to spots since I moved to Austin back in the middle aughts. It’s the kind of place where I don’t even look at the menu, always defaulting to my all-time favorite breakfast platter, the Patron, (formerly known as Roberto’s). Still, despite my undying love of Habanero Mexican Cafe and their staff, the al pastor left a little to be desired. Though the pork is tender, it lacked the pineapple, diced onions, and cilantro — though you can add a side of pico de gallo for a small up-charge.
11. Casa Maria
A combination restaurant and bakery that’s tucked just out of sight off a busy south Austin intersection, Casa Maria did get points for their homemade flour tortillas. Although, while the pork itself is good, the flavor is a little too muted to really make it stand out. It also lacks that certain citrus-y zest that really makes a great taco al pastor. Interesting side note, the diced onions and cilantro come on the side, and not to get all Tom “drizzle it on for me, I’m not your maid” Haverford about it, sprinkling these ingredients on seemed to separate the flavors, rather than creating a single, unifying taste to the taco itself.
I’m partial to Trudy’s because it’s not only close to my house, but it’s open until 2 AM every night of the week. Their al pastor comes with much larger chunks of pork that are rivaled only by the size of their grilled pineapple, onions, cilantro, with some chorizo thrown in to boot. While my preference leans toward smaller, street-taco variety, this substantially-sized serving was a good balance of sweet and savory. Worth noting: Trudy’s lets you opt for al pastor fajitas, quesadillas, or even enchiladas if for some reason tacos aren’t exactly your thing.
9. San Juanita’s Tacos
While it might seem like the above photo has too high of a contrast, that’s really how the pork came out, coated with a nice, crispy char on all sides. Known primarily for their breakfast tacos, San Juanita’s is another staple of my diet due entirely to its proximity to where I live (and because it’s delicious). As far as their al pastor goes, there are hints of pineapple flavor layered in within the pork’s marinade, though they were absent from the taco itself. Still, a damn fine entry that leaned heavy into its savory flavor, providing a crispier texture when compared to the competition.
8. Curra’s Grill
A popular spot among both locals and tourists (which includes residents of north Austin), there are several people who swear by Curra’s tacos al pastor. To their credit, they’re not only substantial in size, but delicious as well. The pork marinade has a sweeter taste to it, and the chunks of fresh pineapple give it the dynamic sweet and savory flavor contrast that’s at the heart of any great riff on this classic.
7. El Tacorrido
A tiny drive-thru taco joint with a straightforward menu, El Tacorrido’s al pastor is one of the most popular items. The consistency of the pork tastes like it was ground up, then cubed before being cooked, which gave it a lighter consistency in general. It was also a tad light on the overall flavor, though it made up for it with a spicy kick that’s uncommon in most al pastor. Still, it was delicious, and when doused with their molcajete salsa, it was a delectable option that was a little left-of-center — as well as a bit higher on the Scoville scale when compared to the rest of this list.
6. Matt’s El Rancho
With their first location opening back in 1952, Matt’s El Rancho founder Matt Martinez has a history in Austin dating back to the early 1920s. Today, their bustling restaurant seats over 500, and boasts some of the city’s most sought after Tex-Mex. As far as their al pastor, the pork and pineapple come wrapped in house-made corn tortillas, with an onion and cilantro mixture served up on a bed of lettuce on the side. There’s a distinct, almost elevated approach to their al pastor, with its flavored pork and pineapple seared together, marrying the contrasting flavors.
While al pastor isn’t generally categorized as a gourmet taco variety, Matt’s El Rancho’s execution is about as close as you can get.
5. Maria’s Taco XPress
An always reliable entry from Austin’s self-proclaimed taco queen, Maria’s Taco XPress offers up an al pastor taco that has become synonymous with her restaurant, and for good reason. The pork leans on the drier side, which really adds the right amount of crunch, and is balanced out with warm chunks of fresh pineapple. Guy Fieri famously called their al pastor “dynamite,” and while it fell short of taking me to the heart of Flavortown, it definitely ranks as some of this Austin’s best tortilla-wrapped comfort food.
4. El Taquito
Specializing in smaller servings more akin to traditional street tacos, when I ordered the single al pastor with everything on it from El Taquito, I was asked “even pineapple?” This seemed to indicate there are patrons who opt out of this essential ingredient. Rather than speculate what could possibly be wrong with them, there’s so much that this entry gets right. The tiny chunks of pork are perfectly caramelized, and the whole thing is brought to life with the smattering of fresh, cold pineapple smattered across the top.
This one was a dynamite blending of the myriad flavors that come together to make a near-perfect al pastor.
3. Al Pastor
It would make sense that the restaurant that takes its name from the very taco I was geeking out on would rank as one of the best. With over 30 years in business, and boasting one of the oldest food trucks in town (located just out front), Al Pastor has an entire section of their menu dedicated to a variety al pastor offerings. As for the taco itself, it’s wrapped in a house-made flour tortilla, and the pork is marinated to the point it has a reddish hue. It comes out bursting with flavor, with the right amount of crunch, and is topped off with onions, cilantro, and fresh pineapple. Normally it would lose some points for the fact that the tortilla started to tear about halfway through, but it was just too good to let such a mild setback ruin the experience.
2. Casa Vallarta
An out-of-the-way Tex-Mex place on a road dotted with industrial businesses, Casa Vallarta has the unassuming look that you might expect from one of Austin’s best-kept secrets. Inside is a different story: The place is always bustling. It was so busy when I arrived that I opted for a to-go order rather than wait for a table to clear out. As soon as I got home, I was treated to one of the most flavorful tacos I’d ever tasted. Despite being absent the fresh pineapple, the citrus flavor was alive and well throughout the marinade. Balanced out with the perfect sprinkling of diced onions and cilantro, it was about as perfect as al pastor can get.
1. Taqueria Olivias
This is, by definition, a complete upset victory. This tiny taco truck is only occasionally parked in front of lawnmower repair shop a few blocks from my house. Along with its infrequent presence, the al pastor lacks any pineapple, which admittedly breaks all the rules I’ve put in place thus far. Still, the pork is delicious and tender, fried up to perfection, with the right amount of onions and cilantro wrapped up in a corn tortilla (flour is not an option here). Despite its significant deviation, the al pastor at Taqueria Olivias remain my go-to al pastor. At least when the truck can be found.
When the truck is gone, I clearly have plenty of solid options. Besides, with a good taco, the “finding” is half the fun.