National Geographic’s television series Superstructures: Engineering Marvels features Volkswagen’s 70 million-square-foot plant in Wolfsburg, Germany. The episode leads viewers through a meticulously planned and monitored production system reliant on precision robotics and automation in gleaming environs. It doesn’t take long for viewers to wonder: where are the workers? They’re everywhere, just out of sight. Engineers supervise machines from quiet rooms, while articulated arms assemble car parts. At other points, segments are carried along a track hanging from the ceiling. It’s at the end of the car’s production process that humans finally appear. They make the last fittings and inspections before the cars roll off the line for testing. The exactness of the robots’ work is impressive, but the final product still requires a human touch.

While Volkswagen is a beloved brand in Mexico (classic Beetles, called vochos, are still fixtures in the country), it’s another feat of German engineering that recently had Mexicans up in arms.

In 2022, Mexico’s El Universal newspaper published an article on Alkadur RobotSystems. Its machine, “der Gerät” (the Device), was invented to slice meat from a vertical spit for doner kebab, brought to Germany by Turkish immigrants in the 1960s and ’70s. The article suggested the possibility that the machine would lead to the elimination of taqueros working their own trompos. The story went viral for its perceived scandalousness.

The doner kebab robot uses remote sensors and a programmable console to allow workers in large-scale kitchens to concentrate on other tasks and to eliminate burns and injuries caused by working the rotisseries. In a perhaps dystopian way, Alkadur RobotSystems’ website states that der Gerät doesn’t sleep, doesn’t need rest, never sweats, and begins work before the boss arrives. By 2014, two hundred der Geräts were sold in Germany, with other sales in more than twenty countries. (There is now a Mexican company selling such robots.)

You can see der Gerät in action at Ro-Ho Pork & Bread, in San Antonio. I visited not too long ago to see how it worked for the restaurant’s tacos al pastor. 

The trompo bot is much more extraordinary and eerie in person than in videos. It sits neatly on a counter. The shape of the pork on the rotating spit more closely resembles doner kebab (a cylinder) than trompo (a top). At the front of the device is a metal arm with a circular end concealing a blade; behind the meat is the heat source. 

Ro-Ho Pork & Bread owner Jorge Rojo takes a knife to the top and bottom of the column to even the meat out. Then he demonstrates its function with a few taps on a digital console. “Watch,” he instructs me with arms crossed, beaming with pride. The arm of the robot moves slowly down the trompo, slicing uniform strips of vermillion-hued meat that fall onto the base of the machine. “Wow!” I involuntarily exclaim. “Cool, right?” Rojo replies.

I asked if he thought it was blasphemous. “It’s totally sacrilegious,” he responded, before explaining that as a former lawyer and current baker he is always looking for ways to streamline processes and increase efficiency while maintaining quality standards. “But it’s up to every restaurant to see what works [for them],” he said. “I have seen customers who think the meat should go directly from the trompo to the tortilla.”

Indeed, there is some pearl-clutching from customers and fellow taqueros who believe working a trompo is a craft best performed by a person. “My opinion, as a customer, [is that] I avoid those places,” said Michael Heiden, co-owner of Berlin’s Taqueria el Oso. “To me, it’s a sign that the owner puts profit over quality.” Mateo Roberson, a native Texan chef-taquero currently based in Bangkok, agrees. “This is an abomination, and it’s unfortunate people are losing their connection to food,” he said. 

Yet there is a history of technological advancement with tacos al pastor. When Lebanese immigrants brought their shawarma spits to Mexico in the first half of the twentieth century, the appliance was adapted to make roasted meat for tacos árabes in Puebla and tacos al pastor in Mexico City. Initially charcoal was used. Now gas assistance is common.  

But there isn’t consensus on the the heresy of the trompo bot.

“We have to be open-minded and see it as a new toy that might help a lot of businesses with consistency,” said taquero-chef Alex Garcia, co-owner of Evil Cooks, purveyors of the flan taco and the ice cream trompo. “Let’s remember that evolution is part of the human race, and the trompo that we see now and we consider as ‘traditional’ or ‘normal’ once was a crazy idea.”

A similar shift in technology revolutionized tortilla-making. Industrialization moved the process of nixtamalizing corn out of the home kitchen and into commercial tortillerias and molinos. And when corn prices rose, it became popular to use powdered corn dough (masa harina) to make tortillas. As cooking became less of an effort, women were more available to seek employment outside of the home. Still, these advances have their shortcomings. Masa harina products, such as Maseca, are chock-full of shelf-stabilizers and preservatives, making the tortillas taste like artificial sweetener and aluminum.

However, in the case of comales, innovation has resulted in a much better product. The flattop cooking device was once made exclusively of clay but is now more commonly made of metal, which makes for better, more even heating, especially at home.

In both cases, people still nixtamalize corn for their homemade tortillas—in part as a result of Masienda’s countertop molino, dubbed the Molinito—and the clay comal hasn’t disappeared.

And tromperos (taqueros who work trompos) won’t disappear either. They will continue to hold their vaunted positions in the culinary culture of Mexico. And the king of tacos, the taco al pastor, will not be dethroned by a trompo bot. Tromperos are wizards swishing their knives to send whimsical, uneven fans of meat into a tortilla. The quick nick of the pineapple punctuates the theater, especially when the trompero tosses the slivers of fruit into a tortilla held behind his back. But it’s important to note that some trompos are merely for display to lure customers and are not indicators of how good a taco will be.

Better to be straight about it, like Rojo. Even though he shows some hesitation about the robo trompo he uses, his al pastor, juicy and thin with charred edges, is good, even if the slices of meat are unnervingly even. It’s a small quibble. “Whether it’s a machine or a person slicing, if the meat is going from the trompo to the tortilla, it’s legit,” says Alejandro Borunda, co-owner of Taconeta, in El Paso. Rojo’s al pastor crisps up on the flattop before serving, but I like that version too.

But as Enrique Lozano, chef at Ay Dios Mio, in El Paso, told me: “Honestly if he makes the marinade from scratch and builds his own trompos, then he can have Robocop cut it for all I care.”