To achieve a perfect al pastor taco takes effort and skill. Pork, once marinated in chilies and achiote powder, must be sliced, stacked onto a vertical spit and flame-grilled until the exterior is caramelized. (Too many places griddle marinated pork to order.) A smart restaurant will perch a pineapple atop the spit so that a fruity glaze drips down to lacquer the meat. Sliced off in strips and nestled in a corn tortilla, this pork is the crowning achievement of the taco arts.
Al pastor loves a crowd. The more customers there are, the less opportunity the meat has to sit around and dry out. This helps to explain why the best al pastor tacos come from the packed Maxwell Street Market, held on Sundays in the South Loop (Desplaines Street from Roosevelt Street to Harrison Street; see our Maxwell taco crawl). Rubi’s and Manolo’s both spin towering hunks of red-hued pork, crowned with pineapple and cooked by the glow of charcoal. On my last visit, Manolo’s pastor was a little juicier, and the charcoal aroma a little stronger. But the real answer is to try both.