Sunday, September 25, 2011

Lost and found: A great Taco al Pastor

At El Califa in Mexico City, pork and pineapple meet two corn tortillas.



In February 2008, we vacationed in Mexico City and amused ourselves searching for the perfect Taco al Pastor, then returned to the same restaurant to enjoy them at least two more times.

These scrumptious tacos are deceptively simple: 

First, marinated pork is roasted on a vertical spit, in the Lebanese style brought over by immigrants from that country.

Then, the meat goes into two warm corn tortillas with fresh pineapple, onion, cilantro and a great salsa. Yet, I have not found anything like them in North Jersey or the city -- until last night.

We had dinner at Las Maravillas de Tulcingo in Englewood, the second branch of a restaurant that serves food from the mountainous state of Puebla. The name translates to the wonders of Tulcingo de Valle, a town well-known for its cooking.

My 14-year-old son raced through the long menu and laser focused on Tacos al Pastor ($7).

Fresh pineapple is the key. When we've found Tacos al Pastor on this side of the border, canned pineapple proved too sweet, throwing off the balance of sweet, savory and spicy flavors.

You'll find the perfect taco al pastor in Mexico City.

Could only watch

I no longer eat meat, so could only watch as my son and wife tried the tacos, filled with tender pork, fresh pineapple and salsa -- made with two corn tortillas, as in Mexico City, but much larger overall. 

There were three to an order, which included sliced radish and spicy green salsa on the side.

My son loved them and found them filling, and my wife said the sample she tried was delicious, though not quite as good as at Taqueria El Califa in Mexico City.

The rest of our meal explored the marvels of simple Mexican food: 

A large guacamole, crunchy with chopped onion ($8); a large bowl of chicken soup, enough for two ($7); a Tulcingo-style salad of fresh cactus, radish and crumbled cheese ($7); shrimp with peppers, onions and melted cheese, served on a large platter with yellow rice and beans, hold the bacon ($11); and a whole, farmed tilapia that was deep fried and served with rice and beans ($13).

The shrimp dish is called alambre de camaron, but the waitress brought me the pricier platter, not the $9 tacos I ordered.  

Reasonable prices

The moist fish looked to be between 1 and 2 pounds, and the price tells you immediately this restaurant serves large portions at reasonable prices, with the exception of the guacamole.

With tax and tip, we spent about $16 a person, and were stuffed. For some reason, we weren't charged for our drinks.

We took home most of the cactus salad, which was bland and could have used a good dressing. I tried squeezing on fresh lime juice, but it couldn't rescue the dish.

We also didn't like the tortilla chips, which were limp from the humidity. The restaurant had its front door open, which I'm sure is a violation of the health code. 

Spotty service

And service from the lone waitress was rough. Only a couple of other tables were occupied, but it took a long time to get our tamarind, hibiscus tea and other cold drinks.

We asked for plates to share the food, but they were small, probably because the square table for four barely had room to hold everything. Water? When my son asked, she brought only one glass.

The restaurant is simply decorated, with vibrant wall paintings. Tables are bare, napkins are paper. Lively Mexican music and a baseball game on TV competed with each other.

Las Maravillas de Tulcingo opened in June on the working-class side of the tracks in Englewood, a small city of haves and have nots. Palisade Avenue was lively last night, with many pedestrians and people just hanging out in front of coffee shops and bakeries.

Closed businesses

Here, you'll find McDonald's, Wendy's, Dunkin' Donuts, a weird Japanese Fusion Tex-Mex Grill, Colombian restaurants and bakeries, a Mexican grocery, Kennedy halal fried chicken and barber shops. Next door to Las Maravillas is an oddly placed auto-parts store.

Unfortunately, there are several closed businesses as well, including Saigon Bistro, which replaced the wildly popular but cramped Saigon R after the latter relocated to Tenafly. 

The long-empty Panera Bread appears poised to reopen as a Wells Fargo Bank, next to City Hall.

Las Maravillas de Tulingo Restaurant 3, 84 W. Palisade Ave., Englewood; 201-568-1980. BYO with street parking. Credit cards accepted. Open seven days from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. or midnight. 


  1. Victor, I too was lucky enough to have some delicious Al Pastor recently, at a store called Cardenas in Southern California. The huge Mexican grocery store has a restaurant inside that serves very traditional Mexican dishes. I also picked up some of those green tortillas you had asked about at one time, they are called Tortillas de nepal and are made from corn and cactus.


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