(Photo : Latinos Post Staff)
Hidden behind a chain of American retailers and wholesale clubs, about two blocks from Highway 200 along Puerto Vallarta's scenic Banderas Bay, rows of street taco vendors compete for the perfect taco al pastor.
How Mexico's signature taco is made is a spectacle on its own. Thin strips of pork marinated in spices and basted in chili and onions slowly cook on a long spit, or trompo, that is suspended above a flame. Most vendors will place an onion and pineapple on top.
Once ordered, they will shave off the cut's outer layer directly onto palm-sized tortillas and lay them on a paper plate ill-equipped to handle the juices and salsa that make tacos al pastor the perfect antojito.
The way it's made south of the United States isn't much different from how Latino street vendor in Los Angeles or New York prepare it; the secret, as always, is in the spices. What most consumers don't know is that tacos al pastor didn't originate in Mexico. It may not even be a part of Mexican culture was it not for Lebanese immigrants.
Al pastor translates to "in the style of the shepherd," a reference to a Middle Eastern street food made with lamb. Instead of tortillas, they use pita bread. Instead of pork, seasoned stacks of beef or chicken are placed on the spit, set to rotate as passers-by salivate with hunger.
It's been a delicacy in the Middle East since the Ottoman Empire reigned. It didn't hit North American land until the 20th century when about 36,000 people fled to Mexico.
"People came from as far as Egypt. I found some people [who] came from Iraq," Theresa Alfaro-Velcamp, a history professor at Sonoma State University who has tracked the migration of Middle Easterners to Mexico, told Public Radio International. "The majority came from the Levant, as it was called during that time, which is now modern-day Lebanon and Syria."
The Ottoman Empire lasted about six centuries before succumbing to a weakened military and strife between the Ottoman government and its people. The first groups of Arab-Mexicans cross the Gulf of Mexico at the turn of the 19th century, settling in towns like Puebla, Guanajuato, and Nayarit, as well as states in Baja California.
Native Mexicans tinkered with the recipe over time, trading pork for lamb and flour tortillas for pita bread. Most vegetables were taken out, save chopped onions and cilantro. Little-by-little, the recipe changed, until spread across Mexico and into the United States.
"During the 1960s, the Mexican-born children of these Lebanese migrants ... start opening up their own restaurants, and they start to create a kind of a hybrid cuisine," said Jeffery Pilcher, author of the book "Planet Taco."
"Authenticity isn't always something that dates back to the ancient Aztecs and Mayas," he added. "That meaning of Mexico is continually being recreated in every generation."
Be it a street-side vendor in Puerto Vallarta or taco truck somewhere in downtown Chicago, tacos al pastor will always be synonymous with Mexican culture. Even if its origins begin in the Middle East.