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Al Pastor North County Showdown

Who Does It Best?

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best al pastor in san diego

Hi, my name is Olivia and I am a diehard al pastor fan. I’ll say it. When it comes to Mexican meats, al pastor has my heart (and tastebuds) for life. Sure, carne asada and pollo are incredible contenders, carnitas and flakey white fish come close but al pastor will always be the one.  There’s just something about marinated pork shoulder seasoned to absolute perfection in a mixture of chilies and bright red achiote, stacked high with pineapple on a trompo (spinning top) slowly rotating that gets me good. So, it’s obviously no surprise that today, we’re talking Al Pastor Showdown of North County – who does it best?

Before we get to it, a little background on the beloved al pastor: translating to “in the style of the shepherd” this method of cooking meat by way of a spit was adapted by Mexican Shepherds via Lebanese immigrants. Mexican shepherds adapted the traditional Lebanese style of roasting meats to cook pork, and al pastor was born. Often topped with thick cuts of pineapple, the meat is slowly cooked as the trompo spins, giving us those thin, crispy, spiced slices of pork as a result. Sweet, sweet vertical spit-roasted pork that has been marinated and roasted until juices from the pineapple, rendered fat and spices galore crisp the outside, leaving the meat succulent. As each layer of meat crisps, they are shaved off with a sharp knife and wrapped into a fresh tortilla, often topped with a slice of pineapple, a heaping of onions, and cilantro. Deep chili flavors, sweet pork, tart pineapple. I’m salivating already.

My list of ride or die places tucked amongst the beach towns of North County have never failed to satisfy my every al pastor craving should I want it in a taco, quesadilla or simply by the forkful, but to be fair I took to social media to round up a taste-test list worthy of the ultimate al pastor showdown. Listen, it was an emotional roller coaster but someone’s got to do it.

  1. TJ’s Tacos  
    802 E Valley Pkwy, Escondido, CA 92025

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Winner, winner, al pastor dinner. Full transparency: this place threw down so hard, it knocked my go-to spot clear into the number two slot. I couldn’t believe it and worry my words won’t do this experience justice, but here we go. Another moment of total transparency? When TJ’s Tacos made my list, a few fans insisted that we had to try their al pastor, but only one mentioned that TJ’s take is what’s called “adobada”. He informed me that the main difference between adobada and al pastor is the variation of spices, but that they are both pork based, cooked vertical rotisserie style but adobada is not often topped with pineapple unlike al pastor. Confident that TJ’s still qualified and was one place we couldn’t pass up, we moved forward.

Meet TJ’s Tacos, home to the best al pastor this mouth of mine has ever encountered. Nestled in a quiet industrial space of Escondido just off East Valley Parkway, TJ’s greeted us with a drive-thru line that would rival In-N-Out on it’s best day. As we approached the doors of this authentic spot, we were hit with the aroma of spices, and I broke into a dead sprint to what I knew, without a doubt, would be a ridiculous taco. Set up almost cafeteria style, there are different windows (and tip jars) for different types of meat. I obviously only had eyes for one window, and the overflowing tip jar labeled: Adobada/Al Pastor told me I wasn’t alone in my unbridled love for al pastor. TJ’s is simple – the real, real deal and you can tell. The place was packed. I set my sight on tacos. The gentleman who took my order looked at me expectantly and asked “Only dos?” as if in utter disbelief that anyone could refrain from falling face first into a dozen of these perfect morsels. I reminded myself I had a long day of taco tasting ahead of me (living the actual dream) and stuck with my order of two – watching with total glee as a woman handed him corn tortillas she’d cooked seconds before. He sliced the meat directly onto the tortillas, threw a couple more things on top and handed me a plate of pure magic. I could tell this was about to be a complete explosion in my mouth before I got to my seat.

Let’s start with the meat itself: a ruby red outside, succulent and tender inside, it had the perfect bite to it. Sliced in long stripes with a crispy outside, a juicy inside, a medley of spices – we’re talking the best I’ve ever had. This is where it gets even better, hard to believe, I know. I’d been asked if I wanted my taco “con todo”  and that was an easy yes, but turns out for TJ’s Tacos it doesn’t stop at onions and cilantro. They dished out a creamy cilantro based sauce that I would happily drink by the gallon full, it was the absolute best compliment to the already out of this world meat. When my two tacos were over, I could see the guy who’d taken my order give me the knowing nod, he and I both knew I’d be back. Hopefully tomorrow. I want to say this carefully, and honestly: this al pastor is life changing. Don’t wait.

  1. Rudy’s
    524 Stevens Ave, Solana Beach, CA 92075

 It wouldn’t be a trip to North County if I didn’t stop by the Solana Beach location of Rudy’s. This spot is beloved to say the least, tucked into a heavy hitting shopping center with other Solana Beach favorites like Bongiorno’s Pizza. Confidently holding it’s own in my number two spot, Rudy’s offers authentic Mexican cuisine – no muss, no fuss, and unless it’s a particularly killer summer day, no wait. Don’t let that speed fool you, what they’re cranking out at this place is the real deal.

Enough with the pleasantries, let’s get to business here. The al pastor. While I had no choice but to rank them in at second place, make no mistake that their al pastor will rock your world. In fact, their al pastor tacos have been their most popular menu item since they opened. When you order, you can have al pastor any way you’d like – in a burrito, quesadilla, classic taco or street style. Personally, I love the simplicity of their street taco: a hearty serving of crisped-to-perfection pork sliced then chopped, seasoned throughout with just enough kick, served with a simple sprinkling of cilantro and onion atop a single, fresh-made corn tortilla. That’s it. That’s right. No chunks of pineapple, no creamy sauce or roasted salsa – Rudy’s lets their al pastor speak for itself, and let’s just say it’s speaking my language. Meat, onion, tortilla, cilantro, done. Simple, delicious, and let’s the spices and unique cooking method of the al pastor really take center stage.

Yew! tip: Rudy’s serves a couple beers on tap, and the market offers quite a selection of Mexican beers that you can enjoy on their fenced in patio or if you eat inside. If you’ve come hungry, add a California burrito to your al pastor order. You’re welcome.

  1. Taco Stand
    642 S Coast Hwy 101, Encinitas, CA 92024

Taco Stand’s prime location along Highway 101 made this social media suggestion a no-brainer in my mind despite my admitted love and favoritism for hole in the wall spots. With it’s more modernized design, tin painted menu board and ample indoor/outdoor seating, Taco Stand is far from a tiny gem of a spot, but trust me when I say it holds it’s own. As we shuffled into a line at least 30 people deep, I openly admitted that maybe everyone was onto something. Hint: they were. As happy customers found their seats in the sunshine, I was able to get close enough to the see the massive, fire-y red, glistening al pastor itself – cooking in all it’s glory, with a pineapple crown. I’d been told that the al pastor quesadilla was good enough to bring tears to my eyes and heard that their rendition of an al pastor taco was life-changing. High praise, so I ordered both. They’ve got a fully stocked taco bar with salsas ranging from mild to burn your face off, but I decided a fair taste test meant sampling exactly as served.

Let’s be honest, few things can take us back to childhood faster than the taste of a simple quesadilla: salty, melted cheeses, the crisp crunch of a grilled flour tortilla, a few bites in I’m ready for a nap and then…the al pastor hits. This is not your mom’s quesadilla. A mouthful of juicy meat, hints of chile, pineapple, and a sweeter smokier aftertaste than the previous two spots – Taco Stand’s al pastor quesadilla is certainly a ‘can’t-miss’. I got to watch them slice a heavy-handed serving of al pastor onto a piping hot corn tortilla, hit it with a splash of creamy green sauce, onion, fresh cilantro and finally top it with chunks of grilled pineapple. By the time they handed me my taco wrapped in a blanket of wax paper, I was about to pass out with excitement. One bite, two, done. It was a perfect street taco size with layers of flavor. This is a must try spot if you want a more elevated al pastor experience!

*Yew Tip: Enjoying a pint at Encinitas Culture Brewing Co? Taco Stand is directly across the street, and pairs beautifully with some craft beer.

    1. El Nopalito
      582 Santa Fe Dr, Encinitas, CA 92024

This hot spot has been a North County favorite for over 32 years. 32 years of blissful, juicy, crispy, crunchy, al pastor. Oh, and they have other must try’s too. This family-owned market and restaurant has been keeping up with the insane demand for their fresh made tortillas (nearly every time I stop by, they’re already sold out!), salsas, guacamole, and house-made tortilla chips long enough to be considered an Encinitas staple. Their market offers an insane assortment of Mexican cheeses, fresh cut nopalitos (prickly pear cactus) and even corn husks ready-made for tamales. With all that goodness it’s no surprise that their al pastor made the list. In fact, many San Diegans flock to El Nopalito for gigantic take-home orders of their meat alone.

I lost track of how many people came and went with heaping portions packed in takeout tins, and I refrained from asking where they were headed as I waited for my order. I kept it simple and took the recommendations I’d received: one al pastor taco, with a side order of straight meat, again, al pastor (what can I say, I’ve got it bad!). My order came fairly quickly and I couldn’t wait to dig in: two soft, corn tortillas made the perfect foundation for thicker chunks of seasoned al pastor, cilantro, white onion, and creamy guacamole. El Nopalito stood out with it’s thicker cut of meat in both the taco and side order, but the flavors really elevated things. Pineapple, pork, chiles – by my fourth taste test location I was prepared to admit that while the majority of my al pastor experiences included the same key players, the flavors, and combination of spices greatly differed place to place. I loved El Nopalito’s version, with cooling guacamole and thicker slices, clearly, their meat is on a level all it’s own.

  1. Taco Bar
    133 S Las Posas Rd #143, San Marcos, CA 92078

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With locations in both Vista and San Macros proudly flying a logo that includes a digital al pastor and trompo (the vertical rotisserie that brings us the beauty that is al pastor) I was confident that Taco Bar would be a strong contender, and it was. The San Marcos location is in a fairly new shopping center, with plenty of parking and once inside, plenty of seating.

Inside it was packed, and as plates of carne asada fries, sizzling nachos, and massive burritos the size of newborns passed me by I had to remind myself of why I’d come. Two words: al pastor. Here, the pork is served with a quickly roasted corn tortilla, strips of fresh cilantro, onion diced so fine it’s translucent, a dollop of guac and a single chunk of fresh pineapple. Their al pastor had a sweet, sort of clove-like taste that lent itself beautifully to the bite of the onion. It was simple, and while I wished there were a few more chunks of pineapple so that each bite could have hit me with that tart layer, I left incredibly satisfied and planning to return for more.

  1. Los Tacos – Oceanside
    2183 Vista way suit B-9, Oceanside, CA 92054

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Their tagline is quite literally: “Everbody loves a good taco” and Los Tacos, how right you are. Don’t overlook this sixth place spot – the competition was fierce, and their al pastor was nothing to play with. Since 2005, this Oceanside location of Los Tacos has been slinging some serious pork (and okay fine, there are other options too, if you insist) to the masses of San Diego. By now, you’re probably picked up on my (understandable) obsession with watching my order of al pastor come to life – there’s something about laying eyes on that glistening, seasoned pork roasting rotisserie style, waiting to be hand sliced, sprinkled with onions, and tucked into a bed of hot, corn tortillas that really gets me. If that’s wrong, I don’t want to be right and thankfully Los Tacos gave me that experience all over again.

This spot was unique in that, they had their pineapple positioned alongside the al pastor in the vertical rotisserie, whereas the other spots on my list either let the pineapple juices from cooking do the talking, grilled the pineapple to order or sliced it fresh on top. Los Tacos’s al pastor is served in thick slabs that make even their simplest street taco a pretty satisfying meal within itself. I opted for two street tacos because I’m no quitter, and was intrigued to find that the pineapple being roasted that way brought out unique flavors the other spots simply didn’t have. That being said, while the al pastor was incredible within itself and their simple toppings of cilantro, onion, and guacamole hit the spot, I preferred the chunks of fresh pineapple to cut some of the spices. Los Taco will certainly stay in my rotation, and I can always count on their al pastor to be consistently delicious.

There are no losers in the world of al pastor showdown’s, just simply personal preference for your pit-roasted pork. Some like their pineapple chunks grilled and served heavy-handed, others prefer to let the slow-roasted juices and crispy skin take center stage, some say it would be a crime to serve al pastor with anything other than onion and cilantro, while others drizzle creamy sauces ranging from cilantro to salsa to guacamole. I think it’s safe to say that when it comes to satisfying my insatiable craving for al pastor, the San Diego options are limitless. Did your favorite make the list? Did I miss the mark? Does the world’s greatest al pastor exist elsewhere? Please say yes, I don’t want my taste testing days to be over.