How Justino Jimenez Got To The Tacos Al Pastor Mountain Top

Ahead of tonight’s event at The Garage where he’ll be serving up al pastor from 6pm till he sells out ([Correction] he’ll be back at the Garage on March 1st), I stopped by his South Philadelphia home last night to check out his prep.

First, he takes a massive pork butt and slices it very thin with an incredibly sharp knife. As for the cut, he uses it for the balance of flavor rich fat and meat. “The tacos come nice and moist. It’s not too dry. Not too fatty. If you use another cut this is why they are sometimes too dry. Little things, they make al pastor special,” he says.

Mound o' love.  by Jacki Philleo.

Mound o’ love.
by Jacki Philleo.

These thin slices–think a super thin cutlet–are laid out on a table and sprinkled with salt and pepper–he stresses seasoning every piece–and then drizzled with juice from fresh squeezed oranges. The meat gets piled into a bowl and is left to sit for two hours.

Then, the marinade that makes the al pastor is applied.

“The marinade is very very simple,” he says, misleadingly.

Saying how his culinary outlook is now a combination of Mexican and Italian techniques and perspectives, he says that working at Vetri taught him even more respect for the power of a few good ingredients.

“Here [in Philly], what I find, most people say good food is coming from simple stuff. So I was thinking, why don’t I start out soaking the peppers for two days before putting them [and other herbs and spices] in a blender.”

To warm water, he adds a light amount of whole chile de arbol–not too much since he doesn’t want the sauce to be spicy–and chile guajillo along with onions, garlic, thyme, rosemary, and bay leaf. Following a two day steeping and a visit to the blender, it’s a fragrant, lightly piquant paste which is applied to the sliced pork butt after the seasoned pork soaks for two hours with the orange juice.

While he tells me the black pepper is something he’s adding that normally isn’t found in the marinade/sauce for al pastor, he also breaks down the genius of the dish from the perspective of a vet of one of the nation’s top restaurants.

“Like a chef, you think about the rationale behind each step” he says.

“What are you doing with that orange? That’s here because pork combines with orange very well. Pineapple works very well with pork. In general, we’re always trying to get different ingredients and make better recipes. In Mexico, we used to buy all the spices in a package. And the people would get so much acid because the [premixed]package would not have the right balance.” In contrast, he gradually honed his own start-to-finish approach.

Of course, while he’s telling me this, I’m in awe of the second part of the esoteric art of a true al pastor master: arranging a proper and presentable mound of sliced pork atop that spit.

Jimenez relates his bemused contempt for a place that had a poor example on display in their window in Philly.

“It looked so ugly. When I saw that meat it made me so upset. Why are you doing that?! There’s a lot of people walking down there. With something like this [a veritable national treasure] it has to look good.”

He relates friends from the Vetri group coming to another family celebration (he tells me that he’s excited for them to come to tonight’s event). They were in awe, he says, as they couldn’t figure out how he put the meat together on the spit.

“They couldn’t stop laughing [out of sheer disbelief],” he says, before relating that he eventually told them.

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