"Oh boy," I nearly squealed with excitement the first time I pulled up to Taqueria La Macro with my boyfriend. "This place looks like it's run by folks from Monterrey." In my head danced visions of tacos de trompo and soft asadero cheese-stuffed piratas and gringas, all specialties of the sprawling Mexican metropolis in Nuevo León. Perhaps, I thought wistfully, they'd even have a real trompo.
"How can you tell they're from Monterrey?" my boyfriend asked, snapping me out of my reverie.
"Easy," I said. "Look at the windows." A giant strip of neon had been curved into the shape of Monterrey's famous Cerro de la Silla mountain. Inside, you could see the telltale bright-blue soccer kit of the Tigres de la Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo León (colloquially known as just the Tigres) pinned to one wall, surrounded by the cheerful orange kits of our own Dynamo squad.
And sure enough, sitting right there in the open kitchen surrounded by sanitation-maintaining Plexiglas 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 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, then warmed and charred on a griddle before being slipped into tacos.
I was dazzled to see a real trompo sitting before me in the restaurant and asked La Macro's genial manager, Saul Obregon, about it. Obregon seemed as excited as I was to talk about it, introducing me to an elderly gentleman whose sole job in the restaurant seemed to be tending the trompo.
"Pasquale worked the trompos for 40 years in Mexico," Obregon explained while Pasquale smiled bashfully and tipped his hat in a charming, old-fashioned gesture before shaking my hand. He quickly returned to his work, while Obregon introduced the rest of his kitchen crew with an equal amount of pride. They all had the same shy smile as Pasquale and returned quickly to their tasks after their brief introductions.
And this, aside from the trompo, is what I love about Taqueria La Macro: How seriously the people here take their food, and how pleased they are when you're pleased by it.
I've eaten at Taqueria La Macro four times since it opened along a torn-up portion of North Main a few months ago, seemingly in hopes of capitalizing on the Metro rail line that will eventually run a few short feet away from its front door. In that time, I've had some of the most cheerful and industrious service to be found in Houston. I often bemoan the fact that seriously good service is one of the things holding our city back from competing on the national stage — we have the talent in the kitchen, after all, and the funds to back them — and many restaurants could learn a thing or two from La Macro.
If anything is running a bit behind in the kitchen, the waitstaff is quick to apologize and keep you abreast of what's going on. The moment trash hits your table — whether it's a discarded sugar packet or a straw wrapper — it's scooped up by a server. Drinks are kept constantly refilled and plates are delivered with a genuine smile. And Obregon is always there to keep a watchful eye on his little restaurant, greeting customers by name and often sitting down to chat.
The customers come in all possible stripes, from businessmen in suits who wander over from nearby downtown to Metro construction workers assembling the line outside. On the weekends, it's mostly families from the predominantly Hispanic neighborhood and young yuppie couples who are competing with them in the ongoing gentrification of the area. La Macro accommodates them all, with free Wi-Fi and large, flat-screen TVs that are almost always showing a soccer match of some sort. And in keeping with Monterrey's reputation as Mexico's most modern city, La Macro's dining room is equally modern and clean, with granite countertops ringing the kitchen and a beautiful wooden bar occupying one small corner.
But all of that could disappear tomorrow and I'd still return to La Macro again and again for its beautiful trompo. It's the restaurant's signature item, and you can get it in nearly every dish La Macro offers: tacos, tortas, burritos, quesadillas, taquizas and even hamburgers. In fact, the only place you can't find it is in the breakfast tacos — which is okay by me, as they're offered all day long (a huge bonus) and come with some of the best and — somewhat paradoxically — least greasy chorizo I've seen in a while. And I'm willing to bet they'd stuff some trompo into your breakfast tacos if you asked nicely.
Taquizas are the most traditional incarnation, however, featuring the sweet pork draped gracefully across five corn tortillas, a scatter of cilantro and onions across the entire plate. La Macro's hot salsa verde in a squeeze bottle on your table provides a bright, sharp hit of acidity and heat to the taquizas, which can easily be taken down by one person.
Inside a trompi-burger, which I've decided is Mexico's answer to a bacon cheeseburger, trompo functions as bacon while melty, salty asadero takes the place of Cheddar cheese. Sautéed onions top off the whole wonderful affair, and that same salsa verde is again a welcome addition between the two buttery, slightly crisped-up torta buns that hold it all together.
And while you can certainly get a taco de barbacoa or pechuga de pollo (chicken breast), the best tacos here are the so-called "Tacos del Barrio," which feature three of Monterrey's most iconic street eats.
La Gringa is the flour tortilla-wrapped version of trompo, nestling the pork between creamy layers of white, stretchy queso a la plancha before the entire taco is grilled to a slight crisp on the griddle. La Campechana features fajita beef and that same white cheese, along with fat slices of avocado. And my favorite, La Pirata, finds all of the Campechana ingredients — tender beef, soft cheese, plush avocado — topped with sautéed onions and, again, grilled until the flour tortilla that holds it all together is barely crunchy outside.
These last two may not feature La Macro's signature trompo, but that doesn't stop me from indulging in one or the other on most visits. After all, it's only $1.75 to get a taco de trompo on the side — a small price to pay for such a time-honored classic.