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from KCET

Behind a $1.50 Taco, a Deep Well of Expertise 

by Lesley Tellez

A pastorero at Vilsito, a taquería in Mexico City | Ana Tello/Eat Mexico
A pastorero at Vilsito, a taquería in Mexico City | Ana Tello/Eat Mexico

To slice the juicy, crisp-edged al pastor meat off the roasting spit, Rolando Marcelino Martinez uses a 14-inch knife that he brought with him from Mexico. He sharpens it every day before customers arrive at Tacos Los Guichos, a bustling taquería housed in a trailer near the 110 freeway at West Slauson Avenue.

The scars of his job sit along his thumbs — faint, squiggly white lines set off against his dark brown skin. He cut himself when he was a novice, more than 15 years and three taquerías ago. Now he’s considered a pastorero, or a taquero devoted exclusively to making tacos al pastor.

Every night, Marcelino’s job has the same complicated set of rules: stack the meat on the spit; trim off the ends so it cooks more evenly; warm the tortillas, keep the cilantro and chopped onion at arm’s reach; sharpen his knife; slice the meat into his outstretched, tortilla-lined hand; monitor the meat so it’s cooked but not burned; and make sure he doesn’t slice off a finger, all while standing in front of a hot gas grill with an open flame.

“The truth is that it’s difficult,” says Marcelino, who grew up in the village of Tamazulapan, Oaxaca. He first learned the taco trade in Guanajuato and eventually stacked trompos, or roasting spits for al pastor, at taquerías in Mexico City’s trendy Condesa neighborhood. “With time, a person learns. But it’s not easy like people would say.”

Tacos al pastor, invented in Mexico City, are among the most popular tacos in Los Angeles, comprising marinated pork filets that have been stacked on a roasting spit and cooked over an open flame. (The spit is called a trompo in Spanish; the pile of meat is called a bola.) Taqueros slice the meat quickly into a warm tortilla and top it with a spray of cilantro and raw onion, salsa, and sometimes pineapple. Many stands in Los Angeles charge around $1 to $1.50 per taco, but the amount belies the expertise that’s actually involved.

“It’s a complicated trade that encompasses knowledge of the kitchen, physics, chemistry, and separately, the soul of a taquero,” says Alejandro Escalante, the Mexico City-based author of “La Tacopedia: Enciclopedia del Taco.” “Taqueros are in a way psychologists or expert salesmen. People come, and they know what each person is looking for.”

[ click to continue reading at KCET ]

Posted on August 7, 2019 by Editor

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