Chipotle’s chicken al pastor is a tasty nod to the real deal

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When my wife and I last traveled to Mexico in the summer of 2021, we stayed in Puerto Morelos, a former fishing town slowly losing a war against the Riviera Maya and its relentless drive to build luxury resorts. Still, the community retains much of its little coastal charm and, just as importantly, is just a short drive from countless landmarks along the Yucatán Peninsula, like a place dear to my heart: El Fogón, an open-air taqueria in Playa del Carmen that is both touristy and indispensable.

El Fogón specializes in tacos al pastor, also known as shepherd-style tacos, as they draw on Lebanese shawarma traditions first introduced in Puebla, Mexico, and later refined in Mexico City. From the sidewalk outside El Fogón, you can see the twin rotisseries slowly spinning in place, the skewers stacked high and wide until they resemble congas. As drums of marinated pork spin in front of a vertical grill, or trompo, the gas flames caramelize and char the outer layers, not to mention the fat that drips from the slices of meat above. To savor pork al pastor wrapped in a tortilla with onions, cilantro and pineapple – a crispy, earthy, sweet and spicy bite at the same time – is to appreciate the hardships that went into creating this exquisite compound: poverty and politics, displacement and loss, assimilation and final acceptance.

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I mention this because Chipotle just introduced chicken al pastor to the menus of each of its more than 3,200 restaurants worldwide. The chain’s take on the Mexican-Lebanese dish can take liberties with the standard preparation — for starters, they chose chicken over pork, and Chipotle is not will install trompos in every storefront for a limited-time item — but its rollout is the best proof yet that tacos al pastor have achieved mainstream status. Congratulations or condolences, depending on your perspective on such an achievement — and the compromises it often requires.

Personally, I found a lot to admire about Chipotle’s chicken al pastor, starting with the twin-engine combustion of its guajillo and morita peppers, which ignite at a level of heat perhaps unexpected for a national chain. The first time I tried the new protein – as part of a Chipotle package sent to food writers ahead of the dish’s Tuesday debut – I was also impressed with the acidity of the chicken, as if the chain was channeling the flavors of the cochinita pibil as much as those of al pastor. This combination of sour and spicy, dusty and sweet, triggered many good receptors for me. If it wasn’t authentic El Fogón at street level, it was probably as close as a corporate R&D team can get.

But the next day I ordered the chicken al pastor again at my expense. I asked the kitchen at my local Chipotle to slip the chicken into three preparations: burrito, quesadilla, and tacos with soft flour tortillas. The acid wasn’t exactly AWOL, but it was golden brick like crazy. The acidity that was first mate on Monday had been downgraded to private first class on Tuesday – and confined to barracks by those two-star peppers, so impressed with their potency. (Yeah, I think I took that metaphor about as far as I could go.) I suspect the line cooks just didn’t hit the chicken with enough lime at the end, as they were told. request to do so.

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The decrease in acid wasn’t a dealbreaker, just a reminder that even the tightest corporate chains can have consistency issues. Thing is, Marinade is so serious in its exploration of al pastor that it’s easy to overlook tiny missteps. Or even the absence of diced pineapple, those sweet, tangy stars that are so essential to countering a fatty protein sprinkled with earthy, sometimes pungent spices. Chipotle’s recipe developers are a smart bunch: rather than having each kitchen prepare pineapple daily, they added enough pineapple to the marinade to more or less make up for the lack of cut fruit as a garnish. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that chicken thighs aren’t as rich as pork shoulder or butt. Pineapple just isn’t as vital here.

That said, the marinade isn’t strong enough to survive the avalanche of ingredients released each time you slice through the Chipotle’s Mission-style burrito. I guess you could create a leaner burrito, with less filling, to give that chicken more voice. But since it’s usually built with rice and beans, salsa and cheese, lettuce and sour cream, this puffy log cuts through just about anything the bird has to say. Best to stick with the tacos or quesadilla whose outer skin blazes a delicious shade of reddish-orange as pickling oil and ground achiote rise to the surface.

At this point in our food chain culture, with its love of limited-run offers to generate buzz, I think you have to acknowledge that Chipotle has (arguably) the strongest culinary development team in the country. They don’t chase glittering rainbow unicorns at dusk. In recent years they have pursued foods that have some basis in reality and as such may have adherents who are willing to hold Chipotle accountable for its wholesale approach of, say, brisket smoke or pollo asado.

I mean, it takes more guts to develop chicken al pastor than it does for a bowl of pizza in the pantry. And to achieve this with an acceptable margin of error? It takes skill and a lot of logistical muscle to recreate it in over 3,000 stores.

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