Meet Concepción Cervantes, the Mexican who invented tacos al pastor

This March 31 we celebrate Taco Day and there is no better way to do it than talking about one of the favorites of all Mexicans: the taco al pastor, a dish recognized in 2019 as the best in the world by Taste Atlas.

No matter which corner of Mexico you go to, you will always find a taqueria that serves these delicious pork tacos, accompanied with their classic marinade, onion, cilantro and pineapple.

But you should know that the taco al pastor is a tropicalization of the shawarma, an Arab taco, which by the 1960s had already arrived in our country thanks to the Lebanese migration.

So, how was the taco al pastor born?

The idea came from Concepción Cervantes, a Mexican mother who decided to start her own taqueria in order to support her family.

What he did not count on is that his popular idea would trigger the creation of one of the most important taco businesses in the country, El Tizoncito; and that his creation would be replicated throughout Mexico, becoming a symbol of our gastronomy.

Here we tell you the story of Conchita and how she created the taco al pastor.

Who was Concepcion Cervantes?

Concepción Cervantes and creative Eguiluz taco al pastor el tizoncito. Courtesy: El Tizoncito

Concepción Cervantes was a Mexican woman who worked as a secretary for a lumber company in Mexico City.

Unfortunately, during the 1960s, she was widowed at the age of 32 and had to find a way to support her four young children. Her salary and her pension that her husband left her were not enough to cover her family’s expenses.

In 1966, Conchita went to an Arab taqueria to buy dinner for her children. In that place, she had a good friendship with one of the taqueros, named Josué.

Seeing his skill in the trade, Conchita came up with the idea of ​​opening her own taco business. She had always liked to cook and it didn’t seem like a bad idea.

That was how he proposed to Josué that he become his partner. He accepted and helped her set up and, later, run the taqueria.

The tropicalization of Shawarma

Doña Conchita was inspired by the shawarma, an Arab taco, for the food business she wanted to start. However, she wanted her producer to be different, original and Mexican. In addition, she had to adapt it to the budget and resources that she had.

In the first place, the place that he managed to buy, located on Tamaulipas street in the Condesa neighborhood, was so small that it did not allow him to have gas connections, necessary for the oven in which the shawarma is cooked.

El Tizoncito first local tacos al pastor 1960. Courtesy: El Tizoncito

El Tizoncito first local tacos al pastor 1960. Courtesy: El Tizoncito

So it occurred to him to create his own charcoal oven to avoid electrical installations. Also, when he had it made, he decided to make it vertical in order to save space.

Second, Conchita decided to replace the lamb meat, emblematic of the Arab tacos, with pork meat, which was much cheaper. The decision was risky, since at that time this type of meat was stigmatized as very harmful to health and that it had cysticerci.

The option was to cook the loin from the pig’s head, which is a small, soft and select piece of the animal.

To give it a different color, aroma and flavor, Conchita looked for a new way to marinate the meat. This is how she put all this in a pot of pozole and mixed it with vinegar, pepper, achiote, salt and other ingredients.

When it was time to assemble the marinated meat, Josué made it in the shape of a cylinder, just as it is done with shawarma. Conchita knew that this would not work, since she wanted to present the meat in a more visual, attractive way that had a Mexican allusion.

Suddenly, he saw one of his children playing with a wooden top, a typical toy of our country, and finally he knew what to do.

She and Josué sliced ​​the meat into the shape of the toy, placed two onions at the base, and brought to life the shepherd’s top, just as we know it today.

Pastor top tacos El Tizoncito.  Photo: Diego Ventura/Business Insider Mexico

Pastor top tacos El Tizoncito. Photo: Diego Ventura/Business Insider Mexico

a bittersweet touch

With the meat ready, now the only thing left was to serve the taco. Conchita decided to put it on a small tortilla and accompany it with cilantro and onion, as other tacos were already served in CDMX.

However, the taco was missing something: a sweet and sour touch. This is how the idea of ​​adding a piece of pineapple came about, finally creating a perfect balance that we continue to enjoy to this day.

Since then, the term of ordering your tacos al pastor “with everything” has been known: cilantro, onion, pineapple and salsa.

The rise of El Tizoncito

Conchita named her taqueria El Tizoncito, taking inspiration from the tizón, the small bits of charcoal that remain when it is consumed. Her store opened on Tamaulipas street, in the Condesa neighborhood.

The reaction of the people was very positive, since everyone was curious about the red top of meat that was cooked at the entrance and that produced a different aroma from those smelled before.

Omar González, director of marketing for El Tizoncito, told Business Insider México that Conchita and Josué attended the business and charged for the tacos in a very particular way and that it has remained a tradition in the business.

“The tacos come wrapped in a piece of paper with a sheet of paper. According to the tacos that you had eaten, you returned the number of pieces of paper that you were going to be charged for, ”she said. “It was even a matter of honesty. Today we continue to do it as a method of internal control.”

    tacos al pastor el tizoncito

All the tacos al pastor that are served in El Tizoncito are accompanied by a foliated piece of paper. Photo: Andrea Saint Martin/Business Insider Mexico

El Tizoncito became so popular that customers no longer fit in the small place. The boom reached the point that a self-service had to be implemented, so many customers parked outside the taqueria and waited for their tacos to be delivered.

“People started asking Doña Conchita to open another branch. This is how she decided to open the second two streets further on, on Cholula and Campeche, “added González.

Seeing that the second branch was also very successful, Conchita realized that she had a product that had not been seen in CDMX and that no one else offered.

Over the years, the business grew to become a brand that has several branches in CDMX. The place that gave rise to everything still exists, it has grown four times its size and you must visit it if you want to know where the taco al pastor was born.

    El Tizoncito history 1966 tacos al pastor

The taqueria was so popular that cars parked outside and were served with a drive-thru.
(Courtesy: The Tizoncito)

good ideas are copied

Conchita did not invent pastor tacos with the aim of revolutionizing Mexican gastronomy. She had the need to support her children, she liked to cook and wanted to do something different. But that was enough to create one of the most emblematic dishes of Mexican food.

At that time, the recipe and the oven patent were not registered as his property, so other taquerias soon served their own tacos al pastor.

“Obviously they knew what the main ingredients were and they began to imitate the recipe, which became the culinary phenomenon and the legacy that Doña Conchita left to Mexico,” González added.

However, the creators of the taco al pastor did claim the authorship of their dish. Since 1972, El Tizoncito has registered with the Mexican Institute of Industrial Property (IMPI) the authorship of the taco al pastor.

How is the original al pastor taco different from the rest?

According to Omar González, El Tizoncito’s tacos al pastor are different from other taquerias for several reasons.

First of all, the restaurant handles TIFF certificates for its meat. This means that it goes through a federal inspection from the raising of the pigs, their slaughter and transfer.

“The inspection guarantees that the animals are not handled aggressively and that the meat is not contaminated with other traces,” added the marketing director of El Tizoncito.

Second, the shepherd’s tops are assembled daily, which ensures that the meat they serve is always fresh. Depending on the average consumption of the branch house, it is decided what size the top will be, so the meat is never left over, it is refrigerated for later or it is wasted.

Third, the tacos themselves look and taste different. El Tizoncito’s spinning top is very characteristic of the restaurant due to its color, aroma, perfectly cut shape and the oven in which it is cooked.

In addition, cooking meat over charcoal makes a big difference to cooking with gas.

Shepherd's top charcoal oven tacos El Tizoncito.  Diego Ventura/Business Insider Mexico

Shepherd’s top charcoal oven tacos El Tizoncito. Diego Ventura/Business Insider Mexico

“The thing about those ovens is that you can have them turned off when there are no people. When it arrives, you raise the flame and the meat is impregnated with gas,” said González. “That is why you feel that they are very heavy or very spicy. But no, it’s just that you’re eating the gas flame.”

El Tizoncito’s al pastor tacos are light, fresh, and juicy. Without a doubt, it is the star dish of the business, so if you visit it you have to try it, or any other that contains pastor (the gringa, the taco with sauce, the huarache and even the chicken).

Omar González recommends that you accompany it with their fresh waters (mainly horchata), but you can also enjoy soft drinks and a wide variety of beers.

The future of El Tizoncito

Concepción Cervantes, creator of tacos al pastor, passed away in 2012. She had the opportunity to see how far her business had come with the expansion of the brand. Currently, the company still follows the school of the family, who continue to be at the head of it.

Omar González told Business Insider Mexico that El Tizoncito is currently changing its franchise business model for one of branches that are managed directly by the board.

“By having a franchise, suddenly there is a risk that there will be a change of product or supplier,” he said. “That totally changes the experience. When you go to a branch and the taco is different from the one you had eaten in the first place, the model is no longer working”.

Tacos al pastor El Tizoncito.

Tacos al pastor El Tizoncito. Diego Ventura/Business Insider Mexico

That is why El Tizoncito is focusing on an expansion throughout the Mexican territory, but in which all branches present the same quality, flavor and experience for its customers.

González does not rule out that, soon, locals may also open outside our country, so that foreigners can get to know the original taco al pastor.

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