From al pastor to canasta, the new Netflix documentary series tells the stories behind one of Mexico’s most emblematic dishes.

By Bridget Hallinan
July 12, 2019
Courtesy of Netflix.

“You are seeing the only one that will not let you down. The taco that cares for you. A tried and true friend.”

A little less than two minutes into the first episode of Taco Chronicles, a new Spanish language docu-series on Netflix, the narrator woos viewers with this statement—speaking as a taco al pastor describing itself. He boasts about having perfectly golden pork meat, soft tortillas, and “badass flavor,” before the film starts hopping around Mexico City, showing the city's residents, too, singing this taco's praise. “The al pastor taco is universal,” Dra. Miriam Bertran Vilà, a professor of social anthropology, says. “It is what makes us chilangos [residents of Mexico City].”

Directed by Carlos Pérez Osorio, the series does a deep dive into the origins of six iconic tacos—Javier Cabral, an associate producer on the project and an F&W Cook, told me he traveled to 15 states all over Mexico to scout locations, sometimes eating at 16 different taquerias in a 24-hour timeframe. The end result? Six half-hour episodes, each dedicated to a specific taco and the region in which it’s popular. Episode one focuses on tacos al pastor, an iconic street food staple in Mexico City. (One resident says that if Mexico City had a flag, an al pastor taco would be its emblem.) Episode two is all-things carnitas in the state of Michoacán, while the third episode puts a spotlight on canasta tacos, which you can find on the back of a bicycle “when you need it the most.” Then, it’s on to carne asada, before arriving at episode five, which explores the traditions behind barbacoa. The final episode wraps things up by visiting cooks in Mexico and Los Angeles to check out guisados tacos (aka stew tacos). The goal of the docuseries isn’t to highlight the best taco, but rather, to show the passion and incredibly hard work that goes into them—Cabral also says he wants people to respect tacos and take them seriously.

“Tacos are constantly battling a fierce double standard against the other staple foods of the world,” Cabral says. “No one thinks twice before ordering a bowl of flour, water, and a couple of nice ingredients in the form of pasta and paying over $20 for it but put those same nice ingredients over corn and water in the form of a tortilla for that same price tag and people will have a fit, or worse, subconsciously dismiss them as not being authentic. But as you will see in the show, some tacos require a stupid amount of prep work and tacos evolve, just like you and me, and every other living thing on this planet. I also want people to see how tacos are the great equalizer. It doesn't matter if you are working-class or an executive, we all love tacos.”

In addition to Mexico City, the "Pastor" episode also makes a pitstop in Monterrey to talk about the iconic pork tacos. The narrator sets the scene by saying the tacos are the perfect balance of sweet and savory—all while a glistening trompo (essentially, a tower of meat) loaded with pork turns tantalizingly on a vertical spit. Although there are many, many variations of the taco al pastor, as we find out when we visit different taqueros and peek into their kitchens, the basic formula includes pork marinated in adobo sauce, onions, cilantros, and salsa, with pineapple too. Its roots can be traced all the way back to ancient Asia Minor in a region known as Anatolia, in what food writer Pedro Reyes refers to as Ottoman Empire cuisine—Greece’s gyros, Turkey’s doner kebabs, and Lebanon’s shawarma. Then, Lebanese immigrants came to Mexico, settled in Puebla, and started making “Middle Eastern tacos,” he says, swapping in pork for lamb and mutton and serving it on a flour tortillas with chipotle salsa. 

“I bet someone dreams of taking a bite right off the spit, right?” one customer says. “You see the meat and you think, alright ‘I’ll take a bite, no matter the cost.’”

Throughout the episode, viewers learn all sorts of qualifications for making the perfect tacos al pastor. The tortilla has to be small, and the taco has to be hot. (Ricardo Muñoz Zurita, a chef and food historian, likens eating a cold taco to a “rainless, sunless day.”) The pork is sliced thin when it goes into the tacos for maximum revenue, according to Marcos Ortigoza, a trompero at El Vilsito—an auto repair shop by day, taco restaurant by night. As for the adobo sauce? Nearly every taquero has their own recipe, but it always includes chile peppers, vinegar, and spices, with occasional nuts and seeds thrown in depending on the maker.  

On Lorenzo Boturini Street, you’ll find several legendary taco spots, including Gabacho Taqueria, El Pastorcito, and Los Güeros, each with their own fiercely dedicated fan base; at El Visito, Reyes says the experience is something you can only find in Mexico City. Loyalty to a certain taqueria has something to do with the bonds of trust, Vilà says. But wherever you order tacos al pastor, there are four main preparations: proto al-pastor taco (an Arab-style taco, with corn tortillas), purist taco (barely marinated with adobo sauce), the red trompo (more adobo, served with pineapple), and finally, an al pastor meat dish of sorts. Some believe the recipes shouldn’t be tampered with, but Reyes says he believes “we should not reject new ways of doing things, because that is how many of this country’s great dishes have originated.” And indeed, when we swing over to Monterrey to check out Mercurio—a restaurant which specializes in Northern Mexican cuisine—we find that chef Roberto Solis has his own spin on the classic taco. There’s still cilantro and onions on top; however, the sauce on the pork has a twist. 

“For me, tacos have no rules, and that is precisely why we decided to make a black al pastor taco,” Solis says. “In Yucatán we have a recado negro, which is a black paste made with garlic, chiles, allspice, clove, a little bit of cinnamon, some people add charred onion. Then, all ingredients are mixed into a paste, made with charred chiles and spices. The color and taste are completely different, and I believe this makes them unique. It’s the evolution of taco.”

While every restaurant makes the tacos differently, Solis notes that there’s also a common and familiar thread between them. As the episode draws to a close, you can also feel another uniting force—the love and community that al pastor tacos foster. These restaurants are where people love to end their days, whether after leaving a party or simply meeting up with friends. Al pastor tacos, a customer says, are a part of her Mexican identity. Grabbing tacos implies fellowship.

“Ultimately, that is what we want to achieve when making a taco, to make a connection with people’s souls,” Reyes says. “And if they are not Mexican, they can become Mexican through tacos.”

All six episodes of 'Taco Chronicles' are now available to stream on Netflix.

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