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Difference Between Carnitas, Carne Asada, and Al Pastor

Carnitas, Al Pastor, Barbacoa: Here's the 411 on Mexican Meats

The beer-drinking backdrop of a hot afternoon or evening would pair perfectly with a festive Mexican feast of tacos and grilled meats. But with a menagerie of Spanish monikers from carnitas to carne asada, taco meat terminology can get a bit confusing. Here's the breakdown of Mexican meats:

  • Carne asada: Grilled, marinated pieces of beef (typically sirloin or rib) served inside burritos and tacos.
  • Carnitas: Shoulder of pork that's been seasoned, braised until tender with lard and herbs (oregano, marjoram, bay leaves, garlic), pulled apart, and then oven-roasted until slightly crisp, then eaten alone or used as a filling for tacos, tamales, tortas, and burritos.
  • Al pastor: Crisp-thin shavings of vertical spit-roasted pork, marinated with guajillo chiles and achiote, then served on tortillas. Pastor means "shepherd," the name given to Lebanese merchants who immigrated to Mexico City in the early 1900s, bringing the concept of shawarma with them.
  • Cochinita pibil: Whole suckling pig or pork shoulder that's marinated in citrus with achiote, then wrapped in banana leaves and roasted. Historically, it's buried in a pit with a fire at the bottom.
  • Barbacoa: Traditionally, beef cheek and head that's covered in leaves from the maguey plant, then slow cooked over a wood fire in a pit in the ground. In America today, it also refers to spicy, shredded, slow-braised beef that's been made tender, then pulled apart.

Got all that? What Mexican meat goes in between your tortillas?

Image Source: POPSUGAR Photography / Anna Monette Roberts