Charcoal-Hued Chicken Al Pastor Tacos with Traditional Yucatecan Salsa

Charcoal-Hued Chicken Al Pastor Tacos with Traditional Yucatecan Salsa
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About This Recipe

In the heart of California's renowned wine country, nestled between the lush vineyards of Napa and Sonoma, a culinary revolution quietly brews. Here, the fusion of world-class flavors has become an art form, and few dishes encapsulate this better than the Charcoal-Hued Chicken Al Pastor Tacos with Traditional Yucatecan Salsa. It's not just another taco – it's an experience.

The al pastor tacos have roots that run deep. Originally hailing from the vibrant streets of Mexico, the el pastor, or "shepherd-style", emerged from the culinary traditions of Lebanese immigrants in the early 20th century. The pastor meat, often pork, is marinated in a blend of chilies and spices before being slow-cooked on a vertical spit. This cooking technique was adapted to the Mexican palate, resulting in the tantalizing pastor taco we know and love today.

Our version brings a unique Californian twist: a smoky, almost ethereal hue to the chicken. This is achieved using activated charcoal, a nod to the wine barrels that are charred and used in the aging process of many Napa and Sonoma wines.

When you bite into one of these al pastor tacos, you're greeted by the delicate smokiness of the chicken, harmoniously blending with the fiery kick of the Traditional Yucatecan Salsa. This salsa, rich with tomatoes, red onions, and the distinctive heat of habanero peppers, pays homage to the Yucatán Peninsula's culinary traditions, a region known for its potent and flavorful dishes.

But what would a dish originating from Napa and Sonoma be without wine? Enter the perfect pairings. A glass of Grenache, particularly from Tablas Creek Vineyard or Amapola Creek by Richard Arrowood, can be a sublime companion. The bright red fruit notes, peppered undertones, and occasional whiff of smoke from the Grenache hold their ground against the charred chicken and spicy salsa, culminating in a medley of flavors that dance on the palate.

Alternatively, a chilled glass of Viognier can be equally captivating. The floral and stone fruit notes from vineyards like Pride Mountain and Cline Cellars in Sonoma offer a refreshing contrast to the heat, creating a symphony of sensations with every bite and sip.

These Charcoal-Hued Chicken Al Pastor Tacos aren't just a meal; they're a journey – one that takes you through the aromatic markets of Yucatán, winds its way through the vineyard-dotted landscapes of Northern California, and ends in a harmonious blend of tradition and innovation on your plate.

If you ever find yourself wandering the streets of Napa or Sonoma, remember to immerse yourself in the culinary treasures these regions offer. Whether it's the distinct pastor meat from local eateries or the world-class wines that have put this region on the global map, there's no denying that Northern California, with its rich history and commitment to excellence, is a gastronomic paradise.

So, the next time you're planning a menu or looking for the perfect dish to encapsulate the essence of Napa and Sonoma, consider the Charcoal-Hued Chicken Al Pastor Tacos. They're not just a testament to the fusion of flavors but also a celebration of the regions' culinary prowess. And always remember, in wine country, every bite tells a story.

Activated Charcoal in Cooking

Activated charcoal has been making waves in the culinary world for its unique aesthetic appeal and potential health benefits. When we think of charcoal, grilling might come to mind, but activated charcoal, especially food-grade, offers much more. Made by burning natural ingredients, like coconut shells or wood, at high temperatures, activated charcoal becomes porous, enhancing its absorption properties. This charcoal-hued wonder not only gives our Chicken Al Pastor Tacos a stunning color but also imparts a subtle smoky flavor, reminiscent of Napa's oak-infused wines. It's a key ingredient in this recipe, bridging traditional Mexican flavors with the essence of Napa's rich winery traditions.

How-to Guide

Marinating Chicken to Perfection

One of the essential steps to achieving the rich and deep flavors of the Chicken Al Pastor Tacos is marinating the meat. Here's a step-by-step guide:

  1. Preparation: Ensure the chicken thighs are cleaned and trimmed of any excess fat.
  2. Making the Marinade: Using a blender, combine your dried chilies, spices, and activated charcoal. The aim is to get a smooth paste. Remember, the smoother the better!
  3. Coating: Pour the marinade over the chicken thighs, ensuring each piece is well-coated.
  4. Time: For best results, marinate the chicken in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours. However, if you have the luxury of time, letting it sit overnight can lead to even more profound flavors.
  5. Cooking: After marinating, ensure the chicken is at room temperature before grilling. This ensures even cooking.


  1. Can I substitute chicken thighs with another part of the chicken? Yes, you can use chicken breasts or drumsticks. However, thighs are preferred because of their juiciness and tenderness when grilled.
  2. Is activated charcoal safe to consume? Always ensure you are using food-grade activated charcoal. It's deemed safe for consumption in moderate amounts, but always consult with a healthcare professional if unsure.
  3. What can I use if I can't find ancho or guajillo chilies? You can substitute with other dried chilies like cascabel or pasilla. However, each chili has its flavor profile, so expect a slight variation in taste.
  4. How long can the marinated chicken be stored before cooking? Ideally, the chicken should be cooked within 24 hours of marinating. If you plan to store it longer, it's best to freeze the marinated chicken.
  5. Is there a vegan alternative to this recipe? Absolutely! You can replace the chicken with portobello mushrooms or jackfruit. Adjust the grilling time accordingly.

Tips for Success

  1. Charcoal Flavor: For an enhanced smoky flavor, consider grilling the chicken over a charcoal grill. This complements the activated charcoal in the marinade, giving a richer taste.
  2. Tortilla Toasting: Before assembling your tacos, lightly toast the corn tortillas on the grill. This adds a delightful crunch and keeps them from becoming soggy.
  3. Pairing: Don't forget the wine! A chilled glass of local Chardonnay or Grenache can elevate the overall dining experience, making your Chicken Al Pastor Tacos not just a meal but an event.

Recipe Overview

Charcoal-Hued Chicken Al Pastor Tacos with Traditional Yucatecan Salsa
Lily Anderson
8 servings
Calories Per Serving:
Prep Time:
Cook Time:
Total Time:

Ingredients List


  • 2 lbs chicken thighs, boneless and skinless
  • 2 tbsp activated charcoal powder (food-grade)
  • 4 dried ancho chilies, seeded and stemmed
  • 3 dried guajillo chilies, seeded and stemmed
  • 3 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1/2 cup fresh orange juice
  • 1/4 cup white vinegar
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp dried oregano
  • 1 tsp paprika
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 8 small corn tortillas

For the Traditional Yucatecan Salsa:

  • 4 ripe tomatoes, chopped
  • 1/4 cup red onion, finely diced
  • 2 habanero peppers, seeded and minced
  • 1/4 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
  • Juice of 1 lime
  • Salt to taste

Step-by-Step Directions

  1. Begin with the marinade: In a blender, combine ancho chilies, guajillo chilies, garlic, orange juice, vinegar, cumin, oregano, paprika, and activated charcoal powder. Blend until it forms a smooth paste.
  2. In a large bowl, place the chicken thighs and pour the marinade over them, ensuring every piece is well-coated. Marinate in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours.
  3. Preheat a grill or grill pan over medium-high heat. Grill the chicken thighs for about 6-7 minutes on each side, or until fully cooked and slightly charred.
  4. While the chicken is cooking, prepare the Yucatecan salsa: In a bowl, mix together tomatoes, red onion, habanero peppers, cilantro, lime juice, and salt. Adjust seasoning as needed.
  5. Once the chicken is cooked and has rested for a few minutes, slice it into strips.
  6. To assemble, place a few chicken strips on each tortilla and top generously with Yucatecan salsa.

Share Your Results

Was it everything you dreamed it could be? Let me know how it turned out for you and share a picture on social media with the hashtag #LilyCooksNapa

Hello and welcome to Napa Home Chef! We're thrilled you're joining us to explore the vibrant world of wine country cooking. Our team has crafted bold, creative recipes inspired by Napa Valley's lush landscapes, bountiful harvests, and world-renowned wines. We hope you enjoy the journey with us!

Get ready to experience the rich flavors and unique culinary delights that embody the essence of wine country living. Happy cooking!

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