Cafe San Miguel vs Bongos Cantina: Al Pastor Altercation

Because Mexico celebrated their declaration of independence one day this week--and independence day another (and again in the spring, if you count Cinco de Mayo, as some do)--we decided to join in the festivities.

You know, by eating tacos.

Al pastor is one of those beautiful fusions of foreign tradition and local flavors that make Mexican cuisine so fascinating. By marinating pork in whatever secret recipe a cook uses and cooking it slowly under on a rotisserie under pineapple, the meat comes out tender and uniquely flavored--often savory or spicy, but always with a bright sweetness. Well, most of the time, anyway.

As most restaurants present tacos al pastor with the customary cilantro, onions and pineapple accoutrements, I figured this would be a simple matter of judging the meat itself. Ah, but the upscale guys at Cafe San Miguel add strips of Asadero cheese to the mix--and nudge the pineapple to the side.

The made for a rather disappointing rendition--overstuffed tacos lacking the sweet-sharp counter of tropical fruit. However, San Miguel's tortillas were noticeably superior to those at Bongos. And the pork...ah, the pork.

Cafe San Miguel emphasizes the marinade, which allows the rusty heat of achiote and chile to ride alongside strong herbal notes--all overpowering the presence of fruit. The meat is pleasantly tender, as well. At Bongos Cantina, on the other hand, pineapple seems to be the key, aside from a spikes of bittersweet flavor where the pork managed to char.

Yes, Bongos wins in the value department. They serve an honest, working man's version of the taco. But on this occasion the meat had been allowed to parch. And the tortillas are wet, musty grocery-style things.

So it's tough to score this toque to toque contest. The place frequented largely by Anglos (San Miguel) carries the day when it comes to marinade, tenderness and intricacy. Yet they've also pushed the dish unnecessarily. Bongos--the place owned by Anglos but frequented largely by Hispanics--wins points for appearance...if, that is, you value a rustic, street vendor taco.

I guess Cafe San Miguel fends off the upset. They clearly wouldn't fare so well against some of the mom and pop joints out there.

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