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Heat, Char, and Tenderness — A Backyard Taco Party in London, England, Part 2

It’s remarkable what a taco can do in the space of three bites. I still remember the first chicken tinga I ever had, years ago: that combination of stewed and spiced and tomato-rich chicken, and salsa verde, and pickled onions, and tangy crumbled cheese hit every single flavor receptor, all at once. Salt, fat, acid, heat, and also crunch, and spice, and sweetness—bang, pow.


[Find Part 1 Here]

Each of the tacos that we made during our backyard party—including yesterday’s unorthodox sweet potato and cashew recipe—meets this baseline standard. There’s fireworks-grade flavor and textural variety and the elusive trait that the Brits would call “moreishness”: that addictive quality, that desire to keep eating long after fullness has settled in.

Our party was the perfect occasion to try out a recipe I’d never made before: al pastor tacos. The pork-and-pineapple preparation shares DNA with shawarma, and was first created by Lebanese immigrants in Mexico. Like doner kebabs, pork al pastor is cooked in a slow, rotisserie rotation, a technique whose effects are tricky to replicate at home if you don’t have your own trompo.

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Ultimately, we borrowed a technique from Serious Eats, whereby the pork and pineapple slices are threaded on metal skewers and cooked over the grill, which produces less of a spectacle, but does yield char and tenderness without requiring an expensive kit.

We also jury-rigged a deep-fat frying situation in the backyard, by way of an extension cord and a portable hotplate and a large pot, so the whole house wouldn’t smell like fried fish for days. I made Baja-style fish tacos, each nugget golden-crisp, paired with avocado crema and a red-cabbage and peach slaw that felt just right for August.


Finally, Zef pulled off that chicken tinga, which was as good as the Platonic ideal that still lives in my head: sweetly messy and hot and vivid and delicious.

Because this was a British taco party in a British garden with British cloud cover, it did end unexpectedly, and arguably ill-advisedly. After many glasses of Josh’s homebrewed watermelon and Michelada Goses, plus cans of 21st Amendment’s Hell or High Watermelon, and assorted Lagers—far beyond the point, really, that we should have been left alone with hot oil—the conversation turned to deep-fried Mars Bars. Who had ever tried one, or their American counterpart, the deep-fried Oreo? Why not now? 


Thus began the chaotic-evil portion of the party. We reheated the frying oil, and made more batter. In this case, do as I say (remake the fish taco batter, sans spices or garlic) and not as I do (realize far too late that we were out of all-purpose flour, so substitute in strong, whole-wheat bread flour; then realize we were out of Lager, and so ask your friend to dump his tequila-spiked Lager cocktail into the bowl). 

Despite what only the most charitable would describe as “creative” riffing, the Oreos and candy bars battered beautifully, and emerged squidgy and gooey and far, far better than they should have been (though that might be the beer talking). Did they make sense as part of a Mexican feast? Absolutely not. Would I do it again? In a heartbeat.

Baja Fish Tacos
Loosely adapted from Tasty

For the avocado crema:

2 medium avocados
1 cup (240 grams) sour cream
Juice of 2 limes
1 ½ teaspoons fine sea salt

For the cabbage and peach slaw:

½ red cabbage
Large handful cilantro (coriander)
2 plum tomatoes
2 peaches
½ red onion
1 jalapeño
Juice of 2 limes
Flaky sea salt (such as Maldon), to taste
Freshly ground black pepper


For the fried fish:

1 cup (120 grams) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon granulated garlic
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
½ teaspoon baking powder
1 cup (240ml) Mexican Lager
4 large cod fillets (or other firm white fish)
1 liter (or more) frying oil

To serve:

Lime wedges

1. First, make the avocado crema. Halve and pit the avocados; roughly dice them in their skins before scooping out the flesh into the bowl of a food processor. Add the sour cream, lime juice, and salt. Process on high until completely smooth and whipped. Transfer to a bowl and set aside.

2. Next, prep the slaw. Core and finely shred the red cabbage, and transfer to a large bowl; you should have roughly 3–4 cups. Roughly chop the cilantro (coriander) and add to the bowl. Dice the tomatoes and peaches, finely slice the red onion, and mince the jalapeño, and add to the bowl. Toss lightly to combine. Shortly before serving, squeeze over the lime juice and season with several teaspoons of salt and pepper, to taste.

3. Prepare the batter. In a bowl, add the flour, salt, spices, and baking powder, and whisk to combine. Shortly before ready to fry, pour in the Lager and whisk; the batter should be quite thick.


4. Meanwhile, place a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan over high heat and add the vegetable oil until it is at least halfway up the sides; depending on the size of your pan, you may need more than 1 liter. Clip a deep-fat-frying thermometer to the side of the pan; once the heat reaches 355° Fahrenheit (180° Celsius), it’s ready for frying.

5. Slice the cod fillets into roughly 2-inch-long, 1-inch-thick pieces. One by one, dredge in the batter until evenly coated and, using a fork, gently place in the hot oil (work in batches of 5 or so pieces at a time, to ensure the pan isn’t overly crowded and that the temperature of the oil doesn’t lower too much). Cook for roughly 5–6 minutes, turning frequently with a pair of tongs, until the fish are crisp and deep golden. Transfer to a paper-towel-lined tray or cooling rack.

6. To assemble the fish tacos, spread a dollop of avocado crema on a tortilla. Add a piece of fried fish and top with the slaw. Squeeze over a wedge of lime just before serving.


Zef’s Chicken Tinga Tacos
Adapted from Serious Eats

For the chicken:

2 pounds (900g) skin-on, bone-in chicken thighs
Fine sea salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2–3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 large white onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, smashed
1 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 14.5oz (400g) can chopped tomatoes in juice
3.5oz (100g) chopped chipotle peppers in adobo
¾ cup (180ml) chicken stock
2 bay leaves, fresh or dried


To serve:

Salsa verde
Pickled onions
Queso fresco or feta
Cilantro (coriander), roughly chopped
Lime wedges

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1. Season the chicken thighs generously with salt and pepper. Meanwhile, add the vegetable oil to a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan and place over medium-high heat. Once hot, add half of the thighs, skin-side down. Cook for 5–6 minutes, or until well-browned. Flip and cook for 3–4 minutes more, or until browned. Transfer to a plate and repeat with the second batch.

2. Return your saucepan to the stove, and add an additional glug of oil if necessary. Add the onion and cook for 4–5 minutes, or until softened and beginning to turn translucent. Add the garlic and cook for 2–3 minutes more.

3. Next, add the oregano and cumin and cook for a minute, or until fragrant. Add the canned tomatoes and chipotles in adobo and stir to mix. Remove from the heat and leave to cool for 5 minutes. Transfer to a blender and blend on high until smooth.

4. Return the sauce to the pan, and place over medium-high heat. Add the chicken stock and bay leaves. Place all the chicken thighs in the pan, immersing as much as possible in the sauce. Bring to a boil before lowering to a simmer. Cook, covered, for approximately 30–40 minutes, or until the chicken is very tender and on the verge of falling off the bone. Remove the lid and stir occasionally.


5. Transfer the chicken thighs to a cutting board, and allow to rest for 10 minutes. Once cool enough to handle, remove the skin and bones and discard; shred the chicken using two forks or your hands. Return the chicken to the sauce and stir, cooking over low heat for another 15–20 minutes, or until the mixture has thickened and darkened but is still moist. Season to taste.

6. To serve, place a large spoonful of the chicken in a fresh tortilla. Top with salsa verde, pickled onions, queso fresco or feta, cilantro (coriander), and squeeze over a lime wedge.

Al Pastor Tacos
Adapted from Serious Eats

For the pork:

2 pounds (900g) boneless pork shoulder, rind removed
2 ancho chiles, stemmed and seeded
2 guajillo chiles, stemmed and seeded
½ cup (120ml) chicken stock
2 teaspoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon achiote paste
1 chipotle chile in adobo, plus 2 teaspoons adobo sauce
¼ cup (60ml) distilled white vinegar
2 ½ teaspoons fine sea salt
2 teaspoons sugar
3 cloves garlic, peeled

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To serve:

1 small pineapple (around 2 pounds/900g), peeled, cored, and cut into 1- by 1/4-inch pieces
Salsa verde
Lime wedges
Cilantro (coriander), roughly chopped

1. Put the pork in the freezer for 30–45 minutes: not until frozen through, but just until firmed up and easier to slice. 

2. Meanwhile, prepare the marinade. Place a large, dry saucepan over medium-high heat, and add the ancho and guajillo chiles. Toast for 4–5 minutes, flipping with tongs regularly, until darkened, fragrant, and pliant. Pour the chicken stock over the chiles; once boiling, remove from the heat and transfer the chiles and stock to a bowl. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and leave to soak.

3. Wipe out the saucepan, add the oil, and place over medium-high heat. Once hot, add the oregano, cumin, and achiote paste. Cook until fragrant, roughly 1 minute. Add the chipotle chile and adobo, and cook, stirring frequently, for 1–2 minutes. Add the vinegar, salt, and sugar, and stir to combine. Remove from the heat

4. Transfer the contents of the saucepan to a blender, alongside the garlic cloves and the chiles and stock. Blend for several minutes on high, pausing to wipe down the sides with a spatula, until uniform.

5. Remove the pork from the freezer. Using your sharpest knife, slice against the grain into ¼-inch-thick pieces, or as thin as you can go. Once sliced, place the pork in a nonreactive bowl.

6. Pour over the marinade and, using your hands, mix until the pork is thoroughly coated. Cover and chill, preferably overnight, and for a minimum of 4–5 hours.


7. If using a grill, light a chimney of charcoal; once lit, set up direct and indirect zones (if using your oven, turn the broiler/grill to high). Thread the pork pieces onto metal skewers, interspersing the meat with the pineapple slices. Repeat until each skewer is full. 

8. If using the grill, cook the skewers for 10–15 minutes on medium indirect heat, then 10-15 min on direct heat until charred. Flip frequently, or until they are golden-brown on the outside and cooked through. If using the oven, cook for a similar time frame, checking and turning the skewers often.

9. To serve, remove the meat and pineapple from the skewers and arrange on the tortillas. Top with salsa verde, squeeze over lime, and garnish with cilantro (coriander).

Deep-Fried Oreos and Candy Bars

1 cup (120 grams) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
½ teaspoon baking powder
1 cup Mexican Lager
1 liter (or more) frying oil


1. Add the first four ingredients to a bowl and whisk to combine.

2. Place a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan over high heat and add the vegetable oil until it is at least halfway up the sides; depending on the size of your pan, you may need more than 1 liter. Clip a deep-fat-frying thermometer to the side of the pan; once the heat reaches 355° Fahrenheit (180° Celsius) it’s ready to fry.

3. When the oil is ready, dredge each Oreo and candy bar in the batter and toss with a fork until evenly coated. Transfer directly to the oil, being sure not to overcrowd the pan. Cook for approximately 4–5 minutes, or until deep golden. Remove using a pair of tongs and leave to cool on a paper-towel-lined tray or cooling rack. Serve as soon as they’re cool enough to handle.

Heat, Char, and Tenderness — A Backyard Taco Party in London, England, Part 1