Magdalena Alvarez isn’t going to give up the recipe for her special — and it is indeed special — al pastor.
“I won’t do it. That recipe was too hard to get,” she said.
Magdalena grew up in the rapidly growing city of Ensenada, Baja del Norte, Mexico, and ate tacos her whole life. As a teen in Baja, she fell in love with one particular recipe.
“There was this taquero who made [al pastor] so well. I asked him how to do it. He wouldn’t tell me. [Taqueros] never tell. No one ever tells,” she nodded. “It took me six months of asking, begging. He finally gave it to me.”
Al pastor is a pork dish brought to Southern Mexico by Lebanese immigrants. It’s like a shwarma, roasted on a spit and marinated in a red sauce spiked with pineapple.
Magdalena, her daughter Sharon Alvarez, and partner Catalina Gallego opened their woman- and family-owned endeavor, Ensenada Street Food, in the first days of November 2018. Now they’re serving that coveted recipe — along with many fun and tasty dishes of their own invention — in a completely different desert.
Even though Ensenada is home to a diverse population of half a million expats, immigrants, locals, and indigenous folks, blending international cuisines isn’t Magdalena’s jam. She wanted to bring her personal heritage and food memories here to Tucson.
But attempting to craft her childhood Ensenada food in the Sonoran desert has revealed challenges that have led Magdalena to forge some rendition of fusion, she said, wincing a bit.
Magdalena’s mother has helped her clamber over one of those hurdles: lack of certain ingredient availability.
Magdalena said that her mother has to bring special elements to make the al pastor perfect, including a specific pepper and some spices (she won’t get more detailed than that!), from Ensenada to make the bright red marinade.
The dish is dotted with pineapple and rendered not picante so much as jammy and complex. In the end, shaved, tender pork has soaked up a marmalade-esque sauce, and post-heat caramelization has created an almost crackly crust on the meat. The balanced marriage of sugar, mild heat, and salt is certainly a happy one.
Another challenge the business has learned to overcome involves city restrictions. Laws prevent the open-flame cooking technique that is inherent in traditional al pastor. So, Magdalena broils and grills her meats instead. It comes out simultaneously tender and chewy, like a soft jerky.
Birria, a stew originally from the Mexican state of Jalisco, is traditionally made of goat or mutton, but Magdalena makes her Michoacana mother’s version using beef, saturated in another bright red chile-based sauce.
“It soaks the tortilla red” when it’s served as a taco on the ladies’ homemade double-thick white corn tortillas, “or the bread” when in torta form, daughter Sharon noted.
The dishes made with shrimp or fish are something to behold. Unlike the grilled seafood so prevalent in Sonoran-style cooking, the ladies thickly batter and fry what might be the largest prawns served in a taco this side of the border.
Even the batter is special. They use baking soda to make it fluffy. (Sharon recounted a story when too much baking soda was mixed into the batter and formed a fluffy volcano. “That won’t happen again,” she said.)
The batter also has a touch of … something, which after trying to detect and decipher the mystery flavor, Sharon conceded was mustard powder. The giant shrimp and moist white fish (also battered) are served with a Baja-style chipotle mayo, pico de gallo, and cabbage.
Perhaps the most important lesson Magdalena said that the ladies have learned is that “people have different tastes.” And so, the ladies will make any dish using (extraordinarily tender) asada, pastor, birria, shrimp, or fish.
Another alternative is vegetarian. The veggie combo, comprised of calabacitas, black beans, and zucchini, can be subbed in for any meat on any dish, and they do a vegan taco sans cheese. “Accommodation” is one of their keywords.
Specials of the house are truly innovative, at least among Sonoran-style competition.
For example, the caramelo-like El Sicodelico has no mushrooms, as one might expect, given the name. Instead, the giant stuffed concoction features crisped cheese on the outside of the top and bottom tortillas, and therefore it must be eaten with a fork. It might be best to avoid al pastor as El Sicodelico’s stuffing because as Magdalena says, cheese somewhat obscures the meat’s flavor.
The El Sicodelico goes well alongside the Cheesy Taco, which uses no tortilla to envelop the ingredients, but rather cheese, “for the Keto people like me,” Magdalena said.
The chefs recommend the al pastor taco (without cheese, though they will put it on upon request); the Keto-friendly cheesy taco, the birria, and the shrimp tacos, and their house specialties like the Gracocito taco or torta, with flavorful shredded beef, cilantro and onion, and Mexican white cheese.
The salsa bar is limited, but that’s just fine because the meats and vegetables are already so flavorful. There’s an avocado crema and a mild salsa with cucumbers. The hot red salsa is something like a 7 out of 10 on the subjective Sonoran picante scale, and the tomatillo green is probably more like a 5.
Another lesson the ladies have learned is that of the frequent mandatory inspection. Because the business is a cart, they have to cook in a commissary. Because they also have an enclosed brick-and-mortar six-table seating area, the health department must inspect the actual facility from which they serve. Let’s just say, the place is immaculate.
It’s a cool place, too. The ladies got together and painted an old appliance sales yard bright turquoise, decorating it with calaveras and quotes like “All You Need is Tacos” and “Yesterday I Really Needed Tacos. Now I’m Eating Tacos. Follow Your Dreams.”
Per Magdalena, “People think a taco place has to be ugly to be authentic. But it can look cute and still be good.”
Ensenada Street Food, located at 1602 S. Park Ave., is open from 1 – 9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.