On the Road

In Photos: Trompos de Mexico

In this week's cafe review of Northside restaurant Taqueria La Macro, which specializes in tacos de trompo, we take a brief look at the history of the trompo itself, which I was excited to find in Houston proper:

And sure enough, sitting right there in the open kitchen surrounded by sanitation-mainting Plexiglass walls, was a trompo. Strips of ruddy, achiote-colored pork shaped like a child's toy top (for which it's named) are pressed onto a vertical spit and rotate slowly, cooking the meat gently as it trundles along its rotation. On top, a whole pineapple with its spiny skin removed drips down onto the pork while it cooks, keeping the meat moist and flavoring it with the sweet juice.

The meat is served on everything from taquizas -- small, street-style tacos on corn tortillas -- to cheeseburgers.

So what exactly is trompo?

The vertical spit looks like the same mechanism that holds gyro meat, which is no coincidence -- both trompo and al pastor-style meat cooked in this fashion were brought to Mexico by Middle Eastern immigrants to the country in the 1920s. In a nod to their roots, tacos containing this spit-cooked meat eventually came to be known as tacos árabe. The immigrants came mostly from Syria, Lebanon and Turkey, bringing with them a cooking style that was co-opted in Mexico to use pork instead of the immigrants' preferred beef or lamb -- an interesting wrinkle in both religious and cooking history considering the Islamic roots of many Middle Eastern émigrés to Mexico.

While you can find al pastor-style meat across Houston, it's rarely cooked the "old" way like this. Classic trompo, which is the Nuevo León version of pork al pastor served on corn tortillas, is tough to find in Houston. Most people trek out to places like Karanchos in Channelview for their fix, where the trompos are robust and heaped high with tender pork while they cook outdoors. Even at other Nuevo León places like Tacos del Julio, the trompo is kept in a refrigerator and sliced off to order, where it's then warmed and charred on a griddle before being slipped into tacos.

And while you can head to either Karanchos or Taqueria La Macro to see a trompo for yourself -- the outdoor version at the former, the indoor version at the latter -- I thought it would be interesting to take a look at the way trompos look in their native environment: the streets of Mexico.

A taquero works his trompo in Torreón, Coahuila, which borders the state of Nuevo León to the east. In the comments section for the photo at its Flickr page, a fan decries her inability to get trompo like this here in America: "MMMM, ahorita quiero un taco al pastor de Mexico, aqui donde estoy en EEUU no tenemos tacos asi!!"

Local photographer Jason Tinder found this immense trompo (although it could be argued that it's not really trompo without a pineapple on top) on vacation in San Miguel de Allende. He calls it "the largest trompo I've ever seen."

Flames cook the pork on this trompo in Naucalpan, a town just northwest of Mexico City. The photographer calls this particular trompo the "best tacos al pastor" in Mexico.

Tacos de trompo in Mexico City proper. "My favorite food in Mexico," writes the photographer on his Flickr page.

Read more about Taqueria La Macro in this week's cafe review and see more photos of the place in our slideshow.

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Katharine Shilcutt