Pollo al Pastor with Charred Tomato Salsa

In this flavor-packed chicken, Juan Pablo Loza, director of culinary operations at Rosewood Mayakoba in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, shares his passion for the al pastor style of cooking.

Pollo al Pastor with Charred Tomato Salsa
Photo: Photo by Victor Protasio / Food Styling by Chelsea Zimmer and John Somerall / Prop Styling by Audrey Davis
Refrigerate Time:
8 hrs
Total Time:
9 hrs 45 mins

This dish takes its inspiration from a traditional way of roasting chicken in Michoacán, where butterflied whole chickens are marinated with citrus, and speared with thick wooden stakes hammered into the ground. Splayed open, the chickens slowly cook vertically over a bed of coals, resulting in juicy meat and bronzed skin.

Here, the cooking style is adapted to a horizontal grill basket set over two stacks of bricks on the grate, positioning the chicken up and away from the hot coals. An oak or mesquite log set alongside lit coals at the center of the a grill perfumes the bird with smoke. Once it's cooked through, chop the crispy skin and meat together and spoon it into warm tortillas with roasted tomato salsa and pickled onions.

A citrus marinade keeps this chicken tender and moist, giving the crispy skin a deep golden-brown hue. Prepare the pickled onions in advance to get a head start on the salsa while the chicken is grilling.



  • 1 cup fresh orange juice, plus more for serving

  • 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

  • 1 ½ tablespoons plus 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, divided 

  • 1 tablespoon dried Mexican oregano

  • 1 tablespoon black pepper

  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin

  • 4 garlic cloves

  • 1 (3 1/2- to 4-pound) whole chicken, spatchcocked 

  • 1 (16- x 6- x 3-inch) log of oak or mesquite wood (or 3 [4- x 2-inch] pieces of oak or mesquite wood chunks), for grilling

  • Grapeseed oil, for grilling 

  • 6 bricks, for grilling

  • 1 (16- x 11-inch) folding and locking grilling basket, for grilling

  • Cooking spray

Pickled Onions

  • 2 cups thinly sliced red onion

  • 1 cup hot water

  • ½ cup white wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar

  • ½ cup cold water

  • 1 teaspoon granulated sugar

  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt

Charred Tomato Salsa

  • 3 medium plum tomatoes, cored 

  • ½ medium-size white onion 

  • 2 garlic cloves, unpeeled

  • 1 medium-size fresh serrano chile or jalapeño, stem removed

  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh cilantro 

  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt

  • Corn tortillas, warmed


Make the chicken

  1. Combine orange juice, lime juice, 1 1/2 tablespoons salt, oregano, black pepper, cumin, and garlic in a blender, and process on high speed until smooth, about 30 seconds. Place chicken in a gallon-size ziplock plastic bag, and pour marinade over chicken. Seal and refrigerate, turning occasionally, 8 to 12 hours.

Make the pickled onions

  1. Combine red onion slices and 1 cup hot water in a medium bowl; stir 30 seconds. Drain and rinse onions in a strainer with cold running water. Return onions to bowl, and stir in vinegar, 1/2 cup cold water, sugar, and salt until well combined. Set aside.

  2. Heat one chimney of charcoal until flames subside and coals are lightly covered in ash. Arrange coals for two-zone cooking: Bank coals along half of bottom grate of charcoal grill. Add oak or mesquite log along edge of coals. Place oiled cooking grate over coals; open bottom and top vents of grill. Place 2 stacks of 3 bricks on grill grate straddling the coals. (Stack bricks so that top brick is 8 to 10 inches above grill grate.)

  3. Spray grill basket with cooking spray. Remove chicken from marinade, and discard marinade. Place chicken, cavity side up, in grill basket. Lock basket, and place edges of basket on top of bricks, chicken cavity side down. Grill, flipping basket every 5 minutes, for 30 minutes. Coals will begin to shrink, and chicken will begin to brown. After 30 minutes, remove one brick from each stack, and place basket back on bricks. Grill, flipping basket every 5 minutes to expose both the skin side and cavity side to the coals, until chicken is deep brown and an instant-read thermometer inserted in thickest part of thigh registers 165°F, 50 to 55 minutes. Transfer chicken, skin side up, to a rimmed baking sheet, and let rest 10 minutes.

Make the charred tomato salsa

  1. Place tomatoes, onion, garlic, and chile on oiled grill grate directly over coals. Grill, turning occasionally, until charred and just tender, about 10 minutes. Remove and discard charred peels from garlic cloves and outer layer from onion. Transfer charred onion, garlic, and chile to a blender; pulse until finely chopped, about 10 pulses. Add tomatoes, cilantro, and salt, and pulse until mixture is chunky in texture, three to five pulses.

  2. Carve chicken, or pull meat off the bone, and coarsely chop meat and skin on a cutting board, reserving any juices on rimmed baking sheet. Transfer chicken to a serving bowl; pour reserved juices over chicken. Drizzle with additional orange juice, and season with remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt. Serve with warm tortillas, pickled onions, and charred tomato salsa.

Make ahead

Pickled onions can be stored in an airtight container in refrigerator up to 2 weeks. Salsa can be stored in an airtight container in refrigerator up to 3 days.

Suggested pairing

A smoky, powerful Mexican red: Adobe Guadalupe Kerubiel

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