The last time my wife and I traveled to Mexico in the summer of 2021, we stayed in Puerto Morelos, a former fishing village that is slowly losing a war to the Riviera Maya and its relentless campaign to build luxury resorts. Still, the community retains much of its small coastal charm and, just as important, is a short drive from countless landmarks along the Yucatán Peninsula, such as 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 because they lean on Lebanese shawarma traditions first introduced to 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 look like congas. As the drums of marinated pork rotate in front of a vertical broiler, or trompo, the gas flames caramelize and char the exterior layers, not to mention the fat that trickles down from the slices of meat above. To savor pork al pastor wrapped inside a tortilla with onions, cilantro and pineapple — a bite at once crusty, earthy, sweet and spicy — is to appreciate the hardship that went into the creation of this exquisite compound: the poverty and politics, the displacement and loss, the assimilation and ultimate acceptance.
I mention this because Chipotle has just introduced chicken al pastor to menus at every one of its 3,200-plus restaurants worldwide. The chain’s interpretation of the Mexican-Lebanese dish may take liberties with the standard prep — for starters, they chose chicken over pork, and Chipotle is not going to install trompos in every storefront for a limited-time-only item — but its rollout is the best evidence yet that tacos al pastor have reached mainstream status. Congratulations, or condolences, depending on your point of view of such an achievement — and the compromises it often demands.
Personally, I found much to admire about Chipotle’s chicken al pastor, starting with the twin-engine combustion of its guajillo and morita peppers, which ignites into a level of heat perhaps unexpected for a national chain. The first time I tried the new protein — as part of a package Chipotle sent to food writers ahead of the dish’s debut on Tuesday — I was also impressed with the sourness of the chicken, as if the chain were channeling the flavors of cochinita pibil as much as those of al pastor. That combination of acid and spice, dustiness and sweetness, tripped many of right receptors for me. If this wasn’t El Fogón street-level authentic, it was probably as close as a corporate R&D team can get.
But the following day, I ordered the chicken al pastor again on my own dime. 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 goldbricking like crazy. The sourness that was a first lieutenant on Monday had been demoted to private first class on Tuesday — and confined to barracks by those two-star peppers, so impressed with their power. (Yes, I do believe I’ve stretched this metaphor just about as far as it’ll go.) I suspect the line cooks simply didn’t hit the chicken with enough lime at the end, as they are directed to do.
The diminished acid was not a dealbreaker, just a reminder that even the tightest of corporate chains can have consistency issues. The fact is, the marinade is so earnest in its exploration of al pastor that it’s easy to overlook tiny missteps. Or even the absence of diced pineapple, those sweet, sharp starbursts that are so essential to counteract a fatty protein dusted with earthy, sometimes pungent spices. Chipotle’s recipe developers are a clever bunch: Rather than ask every kitchen to prep pineapple daily, they’ve added enough pineapple to the marinade to, more or less, compensate 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. The pineapple just isn’t as vital here.
With that said, the marinade is not strong enough to survive the avalanche of ingredients unloosed whenever you cut into Chipotle’s Mission-style burrito. I guess you could build a burrito that’s leaner, with less filler, to give that chicken more voice. But as it’s typically constructed with rice and beans, salsa and cheese, lettuce and sour cream, this bloated log pretty much mutes anything the bird has to say. You best stick with tacos or the quesadilla whose outer skin blazes a most delicious shade of reddish-orange as the marinade’s oil and ground achiote make their way to the surface.
As this point in our chain-food culture, with its love of limited-run offerings to generate buzz, I think you have to recognize that Chipotle has (arguably) the strongest culinary development team in the country. They don’t chase glittery rainbow unicorns at twilight. In recent years, they’ve been pursuing foods that have some basis in reality and, as such, may have adherents who are willing to hold Chipotle accountable for its wholesale approach to, say, smoked brisket or pollo asado.
I mean, it takes more guts to develop chicken al pastor than it does a pantry-dump pizza bowl. And to pull it off with an acceptable margin of error? That takes skill and a whole lot of logistical muscle to re-create it in more than 3,000 stores.