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The Best Al Pastor in San Francisco Comes Carved Streetside in the Mission

Written by Omar MamoonPublished Aug. 03, 2023 • 8:00am
Tacos El Charro's $4 tacos are the perfect bite for an after-work treat, a stop on your bar crawl and everything in between. It’s PFG. | Source: Video by Mike Kuba

Welcome to PFG.

PFG is a new column by yours truly, Omar Mamoon. It stands for Pretty F*cking Good—when something is so damn delicious, it stops you in your tracks. You just can’t stop eating.

But good food is about so much more than what’s on the plate. Behind every dish is a story. PFG is a chance to tell those tales. We’ll explore it all, from Michelin-starred restaurants to street food served on sticks. So get ready, and come hungry.

A little bit about me: I’ve spent most of my life in San Francisco’s Mission District. I’ve been writing about food and dining for about a decade.

Really good al pastor is hard to find in San Francisco. I’m talking about the kind that’s served at stands across Mexico City, with orangey, marinated pork shaved in thin multilayered sheets from a massive rotating meat spit called a trompo. To get that, we used to have to venture to San Jose or hit one of the spots off Oakland’s International Boulevard. But then a few months ago, Tacos El Charro started showing up on Mission Street.

A trompo requires consistent monitoring by a taquero who keeps an eye on it to ensure the meat is charred properly. State health department regulations say pork is supposed to be cooked to at least 145 degrees, but if it’s overcooked, it will taste dry. A lot of Bay Area taquerias have al pastor on the menu, but their trompos are not well assembled. Or they simply forgo the crucial component, opting to grill the pork instead. Tacos El Charro’s trompo is tightly assembled, each layer of tender pork charred and crispy on the outside and juicy and chewy within. The tortillas are warm, and the salsas come with sabor. It’s PFG.

Sixty pounds of thinly cut pork shoulder rotates at Tacos El Charro in the Mission in San Francisco on July 27. | Source: Justin Katigbak/The Standard

Tacos El Charro is actually based in Concord, where the trompo is assembled. Carina Montoya and her husband, Juan Lazaro, were working in the bakery at a Safeway there when the pandemic hit in 2020. With their hours drastically reduced, they started selling creamy corn salads called esquites and crispy chicharrones (fried pork rinds) out of their garage. They eventually added tacos al pastor to the menu. 

Lazaro comes from the city said to be where al pastor originated, Puebla, Mexico, where he once worked as a taquero, like his father before him. Like so many other beloved dishes, tacos al pastor came about as a result of cultures mixing. The trompo is a Latin American take on the vertical rotisserie used to cook lamb for shawarma, the roast lamb wrap served across the Middle East. Lebanese immigrants brought shawarma to Mexico, where locals adapted it during the 1930s by substituting pork, and tacos al pastor was born.

Carina Montoya runs Tacos El Charro, which appears in the Mission in San Francisco on Thursdays through Sundays. | Source: Justin Katigbak/The Standard

With business growing, Tacos El Charro started selling its fare on Mission Street this year. “Our friend lives in San Francisco and said to come and sell tacos,” explained Montoya. So they joined the various Mission Street food vendors that cater to the bar crowd Thursdays through Sundays. They begin at happy hour, around 5 p.m., and end after closing time, 2 a.m. or later.  

Montoya says she makes more money in a week now than she did in three weeks at Safeway. “There’s a lot of al pastor in taquerias in San Francisco, but they aren’t the same,” Lazaro told me recently in Spanish. He added that the secret is in the adobo marinade. “It’s a recipe from my father.”  

Juan Lazaro prepares and cuts the al pastor for Tacos El Charro in the Mission in San Francisco. | Source: Justin Katigbak/The Standard

Each morning, Lazaro forms the trompo with layers of thinly sliced pork shoulder that’s been marinating overnight in a bright red adobo made from pureed roma tomatoes, spicy guajillo peppers, smoky cumin and other spices. Each trompo weighs about 60 pounds and produces 400-450 tacos.

Tacos are $4 a pop and feature corn tortillas made daily by Oakland-based tortilleria La Finca. They are warmed in pork-fat drippings from the trompo on the plancha below. 

For salsas, you can choose the creamy verde made from jalapenos, oil and chicken bouillon for a burst of umami, or the roja, a roasted chile de arbol-based accompaniment that provides real mouth-blasting heat that makes you sweat.

A plate of El Charro's signature al pastor tacos features perfectly marinated and thinly cut pork served to order for hungry customers at the curbside food stand. | Source: Justin Katigbak/The Standard

You can dress the tacos yourself, but do yourself a favor and allow Montoya to do the honors with a flourish of chopped cilantro and diced raw onion, a splash of both salsas and radish and lime on the side. Be sure to ask for a side of pickled onions and habanero—those help cut through the richness while adding another layer of heat. And be sure to ask for a slice of the whole fresh pineapple that crowns the trompo. The signature sweetness is an essential component of the al pastor experience.

Montoya says she dreams of bigger things as a business owner: “I want a restaurant,” she says. “But it’s expensive.”   

Until then, there’s Tacos El Charro in the Mission.

Tacos El Charro

🗓️ Thursdays-Sundays | 5 p.m.-2 a.m.
📍 19th and Mission streets, San Francisco

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