500 Tacos: Al Pastor Restaurant

An Austin taco a day for 2015 — and then some
Al Pastor Restaurant
Restaurant and trailer at 1911 E. Riverside Drive, Austin (map), 512-442-8402
Restaurant hours: 8am-5pm daily
Trailer hours: 9am-1am Mon-Tue; 9am-3am Wed-Sun
By Mike Sutter | © Fed Man Walking | 12.30.15
This place — Al Pastor, Rosita’s, whatever you call it — is one of Austin’s most celebrated taquerias. The trailer attracts the most diverse audience I’ve seen in this series, a collection of man-buns, flip-flops, construction boots, middle-age windbreakers, frumpy, hip, familias. And so I saved it for the last month of this yearlong series, so we’d still have some power-hitters at the end of the game. But let’s get a few things straight before we start.
 First: There’s a restaurant called Al Pastor and a trailer called Al Pastor in the same shopping center off East Riverside. Yes, they’re owned by the same people. And no, they don’t have the same hours.
 Second: The big sign at the shopping center, the one that towers above the trailer, says “Try Rosita’s Famous Tacos Al Pastor,” leading most people to call the collective operation “Rosita’s Al Pastor.” But the sign is the only place you’ll see “Rosita’s.” Not on the trailer, not on the restaurant signage, not on either menu, not on the credit card receipts, not from the waiter’s lips. Nowhere else. The operation is simply and inelegantly called “Al Pastor Restaurant.” But I’ll say it one more time for the search engines: Rosita’s.
 Third: The decidedly eponymous Al Pastor cooks its al pastor on a trompo, a vertical rotisserie spit like you see at a gyro place. It’s one of only a handful of places in town where it’s done that way, among them Licha’s Cantina, Fonda San Miguel and Taco Flats. But it’s possible, even likely, you will never see the trompo in action, because they run it just long enough to roast the meat, then shave it down, store the pork and warm it up on the grill when you order it. Better to let go of your TV street-food fantasy and just enjoy some good al pastor.
 Fourth: Yes, Al Pastor makes flour tortillas by hand, both at the restaurant and inside the trailer. The restaurant also makes its own thick corn tortillas by hand, but the trailer uses small commercial corn tortillas.
 Fifth: Alright already. Let’s eat.
The taco: Al pastor plus (from the trailer)
Where so much grilled pastor goes bitter, scorched and weedy, the trompo gives this al pastor something like a glaze, with a mellow balance of fruit sweetness and light adobo spice that shaves off the sharp corners of the style. More than the flavor, the texture sets this pastor apart. It curls off the trompo knife in soft ribbons, and some of it stays that way even after its holding time and reheating. But still, by midafternoon, some of it was stiff and overcooked. I ordered this taco with beans spread like mayo over the soft flour tortilla, then added pineapple to the shower of cilantro and onion, because if they’re not going to cook my pastor with pineapple, I’ll just have to order it myself. ($1.75 plus a quarter each for beans and pineapple)
 Tortillas: Al Pastor’s handmade flour tortillas are so good — they smell like Parker rolls fresh out of the oven — that I’ll let go of the fact that pastor usually tastes better on corn just to get one.
 More pastor (from the trailer): I cheated on that first one, with the pineapple and the beans. So I tried a regulation al pastor with just onions and cilantro on corn and one on flour. Without the hydrating boost of the fruit and beans, the spotlight fell heavily on the overcooked bits for pastor that never could have revved this trailer’s hype machine so hard. ($1.75)
 Indoor pastor (from the restaurant): Meanwhile, back in the restaurant, the pastor stayed in its original fighting trim, all velvet semi-gloss with a modest spice blush. It was part of an all-day breakfast plate with two eggs over-easy, chunky refried beans, crisp home-fried potatoes and two tortillas. I ordered it from a constellation of dishes made with al pastor: enchiladas, chiles rellenos, burritos, flautas, quesadillas. A good breakfast and a solid value, fortified by a fresh flour tortilla and a handmade corn tortilla that was just as good. Prices run about the same as the trailer, plus table service and free chips and salsa. The dining room seats about 50 people, bathed in a nauseating pinkish glow. It’s dim and loud, but it’s an al pastor refuge for people who just can’t with the whole trailer thing. ($5.99)
 Not pastor (from the trailer): Breakfast is available anytime, and it’s worth exploring beyond the al pastor zone for eggs and weenies scrambled to order or migas made with the restaurant’s fried leftover handmade corn tortillas with just a touch of tomato and onion. ($1.75 each)
 Salsa: Inside, the restaurant brings out crisp, cool salsa fresca and hot creamy jalapeño green. At the trailer, they keep the green, lose the salsa fresca and add an interesting, oily dried-pepper sauce more like vinaigrette.
The 500 Tacos Project
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)