The sizzle of meat cooking in the hot metal casserole is a familiar sound on the streets of Mexico City at mealtime.
From workers to office workers, many head to the street stalls for their dose of tortillas and meat.
El Huequito is one of the most established taquerias in Mexico City. The name is appropriate for a tiny recessed space in the middle of a row of shops.
On a BBC News visit a few years ago, its owner, Marco Antonio Buendía González, whose parents opened the store in 1959, explained that the name of the taquería has a second meaning: “When the customer is satisfied, he says ‘Give me the last taco to fill the little hole that remains in my stomach’”.
The center of the place is a vertical spit with a huge piece of meat that is cooked in front of a flame. From time to time, the cook must turn the meat to ensure that it cooks evenly.
For those who know Middle Eastern food, the image may refer to a shawarma or a doner kebab. But in Mexico it is known as a trompo, because of the way the meat is assembled: narrow at the bottom and wider at the top.
This is the base of the taco al pastor, which is one of the signature dishes of Mexico City. However, it is a dish influenced by another cuisine.
“It’s a migration story,” explained Jeffrey Pilcher, author of Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexico Food.
The “Arab taco”
The first migrants from the Middle East began arriving in Mexico in the late 19th century, but a larger wave occurred in the early 20th century, when the Ottoman Empire was crumbling.
Today there are almost a million Lebanese and their descendants living in Mexico.
“They brought their culture, including their food,” Pilcher said. “When restaurants were established and opened in the 1930s, they sold shawarma and called it Arab tacos.”
Many of these migrants settled in Puebla, a colonial city a couple of hours from the capital. There you can still see these restaurants that serve Arab tacos using what is called Arabic bread, similar to a pita.
The only difference, and it’s a big one, is that now these tacos are made with pork, not lamb, something you wouldn’t see in the Middle East.
“They were trying to make shawarma with lamb, but here in Mexico we don’t eat that meat,” said Alejandro Escalante, author of TACOPEDIA, an encyclopedia about tacos.
“People didn’t like it. So they tried it with beef and it didn’t work. Finally, pork was put on this vertical grill and it turned out great.”
The meat changed, but Arabic bread was still used. Gradually that also evolved, with the arrival of corn tortillas on the scene.
In the 1960s, Pilcher explained, there was a culinary boom in Mexico City. Many restaurants caught on and tacos were part of it. There was a lot of experimentation.
“One of the new tacos that is starting to catch on right now is being developed by the second generation of Lebanese Mexicans, the children of those original immigrants who are taking that shawarma technique and then adapting it,” he said.
The use of pork instead of lamb and a chile-based marinade gave birth to the al pastor taco.
El Califa is another of the well-known taquerías in Mexico City that specializes in tacos al pastor. According to the manager of one of their branches, Carlos Ceja, the key to the al pastor taco is to use a small tortilla.
This taqueria serves its tacos with onion, cilantro, and a slice of pineapple, which is the traditional way in Mexico City. No one has a good answer to the original idea of adding the pineapple. But, well, it is clear that it is no longer that Arab cue that emerged previously.
“The contribution of 20th-century immigrants to Mexico, which has been incredibly strong, just falls off the Mexican record,” said food historian Rachel Laudan, author of Cuisine and Empire.
“Most Mexicans now think of this as a traditional Mexican dish,” she added.
In the United States, on the other hand, foreign cuisine is identified as such. But that doesn’t happen everywhere.
“Most Brits don’t associate fish and chips with the Sephardic Jews, who probably brought it to England in the late 19th century,” he said.
Back in El Huequito, in the center of the city, Buendía González explained that there is no doubt about the nationality of his tacos, inherited from his mother’s recipe for decades.
“We modified the Arab taco, we tropicalized it, using national ingredients,” said Buendía González.
“The key to a good al pastor taco is based on the ingredients you put in the top, how you marinate it. And for the Mexican, sauces are essential: if there is no good sauce, there is no good taco”.
For this taco expert, the only thing that merged with Arab cuisine was the fact of putting it on a vertical spit, “but from there on out the taco al pastor is 100% Mexican.”