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Capital Region Cook-Off: The Battle of Tacos ‘Al Pastor’

Pitting one Saratoga and Capital Region chef against one another in delicious combat.

Chef Kareem NeJame's Carnitas Al Pastor masterpiece is the best-selling taco at his Tatu Taco & Tequila in Downtown Saratoga.

There’s this memorable patch of dialogue in the 1992 Quentin Tarantino film Reservoir Dogs, in which Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) describes to Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) how to deal with a disagreeable person. (Let’s just say there’s some ultraviolence involved.) When he’s done with his matter-of-fact diatribe, there’s a rather pregnant pause, before Mr. White says, apropos of nothing at all, “I’m hungry…let’s get a taco.”

Yes, this winter of COVID and cold has been extremely unpleasant, but instead of breaking its nose, let’s all forget about it for a minute and go out and get a taco. But not just any old taco. The best damned taco money can buy. Or that we can make at home. 

In our latest series, Capital Region Cook-Off, we’re pitting one chef from Saratoga Springs against another one from the greater Capital Region, having them whip up their single best dish from a particular category—in this case, tacos—and letting our audience decide whose plate ultimately reigns supreme.

For our first Battle of the Stomach Bulge, we’re pitting Chef Kareem NeJame from Saratoga’s Tatu Tacos & Tequila against Chef Yair De La Rosa from Troy’s La Capital Tacos. 

Tatu Tacos & Tequila 

Chef NeJame’s pick: Carnitas ‘Al Pastor’ taco

We chose our Carnitas “Al Pastor” taco first and foremost, because it’s our best-selling taco—a real fan favorite at Tatu. Additionally, it’s somewhat of an iconic bridge between the cultural influences that are represented in our Yucatecan Mexican menu.

Ingredients

5-7 lbs boneless pork shoulder

¼ cup achiote paste

1 tbsp dark chili powder

1 tbsp garlic powder

1 tbsp dried Mexican oregano

1 tbsp ground cumin

1 tbsp kosher salt

1 tbsp ground black pepper

¾ cup white vinegar

1 cup pineapple juice

¼ cup cooking oil

1-2 cups pork stock (water may be substituted) 

corn tortillas

pineapple slices, grilled

cilantro

lime wedges

Instructions

For the marinade: In a blender, combine achiote paste, chili powder, garlic powder, oregano, cumin, salt, pepper, vinegar and pineapple juice. Puree until smooth.  

• Score fat side of pork shoulder, place in a large container and cover with marinade. Seal container, refrigerate and marinate for a minimum of four hours and up to eight hours. 

• Preheat oven to 300 degrees.

• In a large pot, heat cooking oil over medium heat. When ready, remove pork shoulder from marinade and sear pork shoulder fat side down until it’s golden brown and crispy, approximately 8–10 minutes. Reserve marinade.  

• Flip pork shoulder over and sear one minute on flesh side. Add reserved marinade to pot and deglaze, using a wooden spoon to scrape any bits stuck on the bottom. Add pork stock (or water) to fill just a couple of inches up sides of pork. Bring to a boil. Once boiling, cover, remove pot from heat and place in 300-degree oven for six hours until pork is tender. (If using a pressure cooker or slow cooker, the braising process may be reduced by three hours.)  

• Remove pot from oven, and transfer pork shoulder to a large platter or bowl. Using two forks, pull the pork apart, discarding as much of the remaining fat as desired. To serve, place pork on tortillas, top with a strip of grilled pineapple, a squeeze of lime and a sprig of fresh cilantro. (Sorry, the cherry-arbol chile sauce is a Tatu secret…but feel free to add your own favorite hot sauce if you’d like!)  

La Capital Tacos

Chef De La Rosa’s pick: “Alpastor” taco 

I chose our “Alpastor” taco, because back in 2019, it was recognized as the most popular dish in the world—more so than pizza. Plus, I brought the same type of spit-roasting machine to Troy that my family uses to make the tacos in Mexico City—and I use an authentic Mexican recipe.

Mexico City native Yair De La Rosa of Troy’s La Capital Tacos creates his “Alpastor” taco by using
a simple, traditional Mexican recipe.

Ingredients

1 cup diced pineapple, plus pineapple rings for serving 

2 oz guajillo peppers (about 6) 

1/4 cup white vinegar 

3 cloves garlic 

1/2 tbsp ground cumin 

1 1/4 tsp salt 

1/2 onion 

2 lbs pork butt (1/3-inch steaks)

12 corn tortillas 

mild or spicy salsa 

cilantro

Instructions

• Place the peppers in a saucepan and cover with water. Simmer over medium heat for about 15 minutes. Let them cool and drain. 

• Put vinegar, cup of pineapple, garlic, cumin, half of the onions and all of the guajillo peppers in a blender. Blend until you have a very smooth sauce. Salt to taste. 

• Season the meat with salt and place it, along with the sauce, in a bowl. Marinate the meat for one hour and then grill or cook it in a skillet or pan with oil, grilling or cooking the pineapple and remaining onions along with the meat. 

• Chop up the meat, onions and pineapple and place the contents inside a corn tortilla. Serve with onions, cilantro and salsa verde.   

Will Levith

Will Levith is Editorial Director at Saratoga Living and Capital Region Living magazine. He's a native Saratogian and graduate of Saratoga Springs High School. His work has been published by Esquire, Playboy, Condé Nast Traveler, Men's Health, RealClearLife and many others. He lives in Troy with his wife, Laura, and dog, Esopus.

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