Sunday, August 29, 2010

The One-Year Anniversary Denver al Pastor List: Top Eight and Counting

Just about one year ago I started writing some words on my computer, clicking a few buttons and magically making them appear to whatever internet-having person may happen to come across them. If you don't know already I was inspired to start my blog based on my experiences in Mexico City, home to the best tacos al pastor in the world. I also have come to realize, that tacos al pastor are quite possibly one of the best foods of all-time. In between my other adventures in gluttony over the past year, my goal was to put together a list of Denver's top ten taco al pastor taquerias.

On a side note, I have also started my own private taco al pastor art collection, thanks to food illustrator Riki Takoaka

Why top ten? Not sure, but it doesn't matter because I didn't get there. That's good in a way because I'd hate to seem like one more conformist consumer, slave to the top-ten list. In fact, I hope to get to eleven someday soon.

It wasn't that easy, however, for me to find even these eight taquerias. To make this elite (yet also unknown and for most irrelevant) list there were some rules, and most pastor-serving restaurants did not qualify. To review, tacos al pastor are stacks of marinated pork shaped into a spit. To have any chance at being authentic said taco must come from a spit. That eliminates the majority of taquerias in the Denver area. After that the tacos are to be charred with an open flame and sliced deftly onto the tortilla (or in the US onto another grill as requested by the hypochondriac food police). The taco is then topped with pineapple. Ideally the pineapple is stuck on the top of the spit and has been roasted some as well. In Denver I made some exceptions to this rule--as long as the meat came from a spit--but be aware, a taco al pastor without pineapple is like batman without his boy robin (in a totally non-sexual way).

Many of you will of course not care in the slightest how picky my rules are, or in the finer points of a taco al pastor debate, so I will spare you. (If you care to know even more about al pastor, click here.) That being said, I think you will find that my top picks serve an amazing, authentic taco al pastor which should leave anyone happy, wherever it is you happen to lie on the taco al pastor love-specturm. Just click on the link of the taqueria to be taken to my full review which also includes exact location. And now without further adieu (or if you prefer, bullshit) I present unto you my magnum opus.

1. Taco Veloz
Taco Veloz on North Federal near 51st simply serves the best and most consistent taco al pastor in Denver. It is as perfect as a pastor taco can be with the US-mandated second-grill-cooking process. Thin, deft slices, perfect char, fresh pineapple and homemade corn tortillas. A bonus is the salsa bar where I've even had freshly hand-ground molcajete salsas. Fresh aguas abound. You absolutely cannot go wrong here.

2. Acapulco Tacos y Pupusas
In this tiny taco shop on the corner of E. Colfax and Yosemite, I once overheard the taqueros talking, and from what I gathered the owners are from El Salvador. This would make sense given the pupusas part of the name, but what is surprising, then, is how damn good this pastor is. It was a little disconcerting to my wife (who is Chilanga--from Mexico City--through and through), that some of the better al pastor in Denver is made by Salvadoreños, but such is life in our great melting-pot-of-a-country. Of course, we wouldn't really care if hypocrite and Mexican-hating Tom Tancredo was back there slicing up onions (actually I would pay money to see him do this), this place is worth the trip.

Before I started this blog and made myself break out of my routine, I was a 38th-and-Pecos-Carboncitos regular-- though "addict" may be a better word to describe it. This is a fantastic taco shop and they make an excellent pastor. In addition to the taco, they also serve my favorite huarache in Denver, a big sandal-sized fried piece of dough stacked high with pastor meat. It's hard to admit that I would rank it below two others, as the pastor is very, very good and authentic, but I just did. Regardless, you can't go wrong here. 

4. Tacos el Gordo
This was a great find and is a relatively new taqueria tucked into a forgotten corner of Denver's Globeville neighborhood on 45th near Washington. Still far away from any gentrification, Globeville is a wonderful, historic area of our fine city just north of downtown and is home to one high-quality taco al pastor. They didn't have pineapple when I went, but even without it, this was a perfectly charred, sliced and flavored pastor fresh from the spit.

5. TacoMex
TacoMex on E. Colfax is always worth the trip simply based on the atmosphere. They do it up right with a large canopy tent outside that always attracts a big crowd. The music stays bumping and tacos are served late into the night on the weekends. The pastor is better than the average Denver pastor, but the flavor and lack of char knock it down to five.

6. Tacos Junior
Tacos Junior wins for the biggest, sexiest and well-manicured spit of pastor, and they also slice and char their meat well. But taste? It is a little too sweet and tomato-y, lacking the complexity of a nicer pastor marinade. That being said it is still pretty damn good, and it is the only place I know that one can get a taco arabe straight from the spit, which is what they like to serve in places like Puebla-- thin, "pita-like" tortillas rolled up like a flute with pastor, cilantro and onions. With several metro-area locations, Tacos Junior is there for you when you need a pastor fix.

7. Tacos y Salsas
This was my latest review and while I love the Federal location as an all-round taqueria (that serves beer), their pastor is thickly cut, too greasy and not well-charred. It is still pretty good, though, and I get one out of habit every time I go, which is pretty often. On E. Colfax they have the spit out on the street, but mostly they slice and grill inside, so if you find yourself at this location, go down the street to my number two and five picks.

8. Tacos Tijuana
Serving the Denver Northwest area with authentic-looking spit tacos, they have the canopy tent like TacoMex and seem like they are ready for a pastor party, but they sure can't make a marinade. Also they not only don't put pineapple on their tacos, they act as if they have never even heard of the idea. That being said, it is a good, greasy taco of thick, juicy chunks of pork that have been marinating in something-- so it's not like you'll have a bad time.

Bonus: Tacos al Pastor at Home
Thanks to Steven Raichlan for publishing a pastor recipe in his new Planet Barbecue book then sending it to me. He somehow got this highly-secretive and closely guarded recipe for tacos al pastor from a taquiera in Cancun, Mexico, and as I said in my review, it's probably better we don't know the dirty details of how that deal went down. When executed well, and even at home sans spit, this recipe would actually slide into the number five spot for taste.

There you have it, Denver: Your top eight taco al pastor taquerias and a way to make them at home as well. I'm sure there are more and I welcome any and all suggestions and/ or leads. I will do my best to track down some more and add them to the list where I best see fit. Also, thanks to everyone that has read, commented on, emailed to, bitched about, pitched to and yes at times even complimented this blog. It has been a lot of fun and I hope this second year is even better.


  1. Sorry I missed the actual blogiversary by a couple of days. Loved your list. This must be the time for local food blog milestones. My CulinaryColorado blog just passed the 1,000-post landmark. I wrote a commemorative post about it at . Congrats to you -- I guess to us both!

  2. Oh my...were you and my husband seperated @ birth?
    Great round-up...we've been to a few of these places, glad to have some more tested options.
    Good blog, will definitely be following!

  3. Congratulations! Through your words I explore parts of Denver far from my just-south-of-Denver home.

  4. Went to the Denver Cafe (complete with stupid bronco head on the sign) in Addis Ababa last week. Regret that there was no pastor. These pictures are killing me.

  5. This is great! I also adore Riki's blog. Do you know him?

  6. After a couple years hiatus from Denver, I'm back and eager to try new food and get back to the style of Mexican food that I like best. I want to try every one of these spots you mentioned! Nice.



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