The birria boom is complicated, but simply delicious – The Denver Post

By Tejal Rao, The New York Times

LOS ANGELES — You go to Birrieria Nochistlán for the Moreno family’s Zacatecan-style birria — a big bowl of hot goat meat submerged in a dark pool of its own concentrated cooking juices.

Right out of the pot, the steamed meat isn’t just tender, but in places deliciously sticky, smudged with chile adobo, falling apart, barely even connected to the bone. It comes with thick, soft tortillas, made to order, and a vibrant salsa roja. The Moreno family has been serving birria exactly like this for about 20 years.

“Sometimes I think we should update our menu,” said Rosio Moreno, 23, whose parents started the business out of their home in East Los Angeles. “But we don’t want to change the way we do things because of the hype.”

The hype for birria is relentless. On Instagram, there is a collective fetishization of cheese pulls in extreme close-ups, and images of tacos half-dipped in Styrofoam cups of meaty broth. The parade of magnificent, bonkers mash-ups is endless — birria waffles, birria pizza, birria fries, birria pho, birria tortellini. Birria cooking videos work more like pieces of choreography on TikTok, changing slightly each time a new person performs them. This means that, yes, somewhere, a white woman is sharing her “authentic birria” recipe made with boneless beef, packaged bone broth, a few shakes of smoked pimentón and some puréed carrots — the dark side of internet fame, for any dish.

The bright side is that entrepreneurial Mexican and Mexican American cooks have been able to set new businesses into motion all over the country, and use birria to preserve older ones. In New Orleans, the addition of birria tacos to the menu, even just two days a week, has helped keep Mawi Tortillas afloat throughout the pandemic.

Still, it’s complicated: The same hype that has broadened demand for birria has also flattened its perception. Newcomers to the dish will sometimes understand it only as Tijuana-style birria de res — the brothy braised beef with a generous float of exquisite, reddish fat — shredded and tucked into crisp doraditos or quesabirria tacos.

Moreno has lost count of how many customers have walked into her family’s tiny birrieria on East Fourth Street and asked for the cheesy fried tacos that dominate social media. Those tacos are great, she tells them, but there is more than one way to enjoy birria.

In translation, the dish points to chaos, to a deliciously messy jumble. To a certain extent, that has always been true: Birria varies greatly in style from Jalisco and Aguascalientes to Michoacán and Zacatecas.

Author Josefina Velázquez de León traveled through Mexico in the 1940s, documenting traditional recipes, and published one for a Zacatecan birria in her 1946 book, “Platillos Regionales de la República Mexicana.”

It calls for a whole sheep, rubbed with a paste of lightly roasted ancho, cascabel and mora chiles, seasoned with cinnamon, cloves, cumin and oregano. Though the ingredient list isn’t so far from a modern version, the technique draws from Indigenous, pre-Columbian cooking traditions.

Once the marinated sheep is in the pot, the top is tightly sealed with masa, pressed around the rim, so no steam can escape, then tucked into a fire pit in the ground to cook slowly, like barbacoa. It is served in bowls with a dribble of green tomato salsa and some of the cooking juices — the rendered animal fat, the complex adobo and the steam having fused into an ambrosial pot liquor known as consomé.

On a recent, rainy weekend in Los Angeles, chef Josef Centeno had put oxtail birria on his menu at Bar Amá. The meat was opulent, like a confit, infused all the way through with flavor, cooked so it slipped off the bone in your teeth, in places as gelatinous as the shreds of tomato in the thick, abundant sauce capped with spiced, scarlet-colored fat.

He packed it all up with hot flour tortillas, raw red cabbage and cilantro, radishes, onion and salsa, each one in its own tiny to-go container so you could fix it the way you like.

Centeno grew up in Texas eating his family’s beef birria on the weekends, and goat birria on more special occasions like birthdays and family gatherings at his uncle’s ranch.

“When I first started making it, I stuck to my grandma Alice’s recipe,” he said.

But later, working as a cook at Manresa, the fine-dining restaurant in Los Gatos, California, he turned the kitchen’s lamb scraps into birria for staff meals. He now makes birria with pork, chicken, lamb on the bone and even tofu, adjusting the recipe each time.

Birria is most often associated with goat, sheep or beef, but cooks have always worked with what they had. And a birria recipe in the 1964 Mexican cookbook “Las Senadoras Suelen Guisar” specifically calls for pork.

When making vegetarian versions, Centeno builds up more flavor by adding root vegetables and incorporating earthier ingredients, like mushrooms. He sometimes adds a nub of ginger (as many birrieros do) and lemongrass (a more unusual addition), nudging the adobo into the realm of a curry paste.

The foundation of his recipe doesn’t change: warm spices, about eight kinds of chiles, a lot of cilantro and canned tomatoes. But with so many variations, even from a single kitchen, it is hard to say exactly what makes birria birria — even for birria makers.

It is not an underground pit, which isn’t convenient for most cooks, and definitely isn’t portable. It is not tomatoes, which some cooks refuse to add. Spice mixtures vary. Vinegar is optional. The braise can be thin and brothy or thick and burly. And searing the meat like Centeno — getting it deeply brown all over to build flavor — isn’t a universal practice.

As Moreno put it, there is also more than one way to prepare birria. Many variations are regional, but others have been shaped by expert birrieros over the years, based on their tastes and limitations. Someone working with a small cart and one burner, for example, wouldn’t have the space to sear 100 pounds of meat — it would take hours.

“I think of myself as traditional,” said Carlos Jaquez, who doesn’t sear the meat for his birria. “But some people will tell you what I do is anything but traditional.”

In the El Sereno neighborhood of Los Angeles, Jaquez runs Birria Pa La Cruda, which he started as a pop-up in his family’s home on Sundays, while he was working during the week at Bestia — the buzzy regional Italian restaurant in downtown Los Angeles.

Jaquez makes birria tortas, birria tacos and a huge, cheesy birria tostada (called a volcan on the menu) and sells them alongside unexpectedly pretty vegetable dishes made from whatever he has picked up at the farmers’ market that week.

“Up until I opened the stand, I understood birria as something you eat in a bowl with a side of tortillas,” he said, remembering the gamy goat birria his family bought on weekends at a garage in the neighborhood, and ate with pickled onions and habanero vinegar.

He had an uncle who cooked birria whenever the Los Angeles Lakers won a championship, and to research the dish, Jaquez spent months interviewing older generations of home cooks. Do you put tomato in your birria? Do you use avocado leaves, and what are your thoughts on adding agave?

He distilled his notes and practiced. He now makes an adobo full of charred chiles, spices and other aromatics, and slowly, gently braises the meat. His birria is lean, but deep with flavor, made with lamb or beef.

“Marrying the delicate braise with the heavy complex flavors — that process is birria,” he said.

Teddy Vasquez learned to make birria in Tijuana in 2015, just as demand for the local style of birria de res was picking up. He had studied aviation mechanics, and worked trucking goods back and forth between Los Angeles and Tijuana, but his business wasn’t doing well. Neither was he.

He was depressed. He was drinking. He was in debt. When a friend offered him work at Birrieria El Paisa, he almost snubbed him. Before the hype, birria was considered a reliable, old-school hangover cure in Los Angeles, fortifying you late on a weekend morning, or drawing generations of family together after church.

“At first I thought, ‘Cooking birria isn’t for me,’ ” Vasquez said. “I knew birria as this big plate of goat with a strong aftertaste, as something for older generations.”

But what Vasquez learned in Tijuana was a revelation — birria as contemporary, everyday food, made with beef and a different calibration of spices. He particularly admired the consomé, and the crunch on the tortillas cooked in the rendered fat skimmed from the top. “I started getting excited,” said Vasquez, who got motivated by watching Tony Robbins and Les Brown clips on YouTube. “I thought, ‘What if I take this back to LA? What if it’s possible for me to make my own version of it?’ What if, what if, what if!”

While driving for Lyft and Uber in Los Angeles, he saved up for basic equipment — a giant pot, a blender, a stainless steel table. And in his old Geo Prizm, he zigzagged through the city, selling beef-shoulder birria tacos to workers at the entrance of a sewing factory or outside a club late at night, asking his mother to help take orders, telling every single person he met to follow him on Facebook and Instagram.

His “deluxe plate” — a taco, quesadilla, tostada and mulita, with a cup of consomé for sipping on the side — quickly became the star of Teddy’s Red Tacos, showcasing birria among a range of textures.

Vasquez got his first truck in 2017, and now has three, along with a staff of 50 people. “We haven’t had to let go of anyone during the pandemic,” he said. “We’ve only grown.”

Now, when Vasquez talks about his birria mentor in Tijuana, he has what he earnestly refers to in Instagram captions as an “attitude of gratitude.”

“I believe sometimes God uses people as angels,” he said. “And he used him as an angel to redirect me to a different path.”

Along with the Gonzalez brothers behind Birrieria Gonzalez, and others who established Tijuana-style birria tacos here, Vasquez was instrumental in the birria de res boom in Los Angeles and beyond, thanks to his persistent good cooking and strategic social media presence.

Vasquez isn’t against the inevitable mash-ups that have evolved, many of which have already moved beyond novelty status to become canon. But he still thinks of dishes like birria ramen as a kind of backup plan.

“If taco sales ever start dropping, then maybe we’ll do ramen,” he said. “But we haven’t even had to think about that so far.”

Recipe: Quesabirria Tacos

Yield: 4 tacos

Total time: 15 minutes

Ingredients

  • 1/4 cup seasoned birria fat plus 1 cup leftover birria meat (both from Birria de Res)
  • 4 corn tortillas
  • 1 cup shredded low-moisture cheese, such as Monterey Jack
  • 1/4 white onion, chopped
  • 1 handful fresh cilantro leaves, chopped
  • 1 lime, quartered

Preparation

1. Use a spoon to skim the red-stained fat floating on the top of the birria pot — it Is deeply seasoned and the key to crisp, delicious tacos — and put it on a plate. Pull the meat and shred it with your hands, or a fork. (The meat should be very lightly dressed in broth, but not swimming in it.)

2. Heat a large nonstick or cast-iron skillet over medium. Working quickly, dip each tortilla into the birria fat on one side then flop it onto the hot pan, fat-side down. As it starts to sizzle, sprinkle 1/4 cup cheese to cover each tortilla, going all the way to the edges, then sprinkle about 1/4 cup meat over half of each tortilla.

3. As the tortillas brown and the cheese starts to melt, fold each tortilla in half to cover the meat, pressing down gently. It is OK if some cheese spills out, in fact, it is encouraged; this leads to lacy, crispy edges. Manage the heat and flip the tacos as needed to avoid burning, cooking until crisp on both sides.

4. Just before eating, lift up the taco edge and season each with a little onion, cilantro and lime juice, to taste.

Recipe: Birria Tacos With Chile Broth

By Pati Jinich

Yield: 8 servings

Total time: 4 hours, largely unattended

Ingredients

  • 4 to 5 pounds bone-in goat or lamb shoulder, cut into 3-inch pieces
  • 1/4 cup distilled white vinegar
  • 6 teaspoons fine sea salt or coarse kosher salt, plus more to taste
  • 4 to 5 large dried avocado leaves
  • 3 ounces guajillo chiles (10 to 15), stemmed and seeded
  • 16 corn tortillas, warmed
  • 2 cups finely chopped white onion
  • 2 cups chopped cilantro leaves
  • 2 to 3 limes, cut into wedges

Preparation

1. Place the meat in a large bowl and cover with cold water. Add the vinegar and 2 teaspoons salt, and let sit for 20 to 30 minutes. Drain, then rinse well with cold water.

2. Place the rinsed meat in a Dutch oven or other ovenproof pot, cover with water (at least 3 quarts), add 4 teaspoons salt and stir. Bring to a rolling boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to low and skim foam from the surface. Cover and cook for 2 hours.

3. Meanwhile, heat a medium saucepan over medium-low. Once hot, toast the avocado leaves, flipping them as they cook, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Remove from the saucepan.

4. Place the chiles in the saucepan, cover with water and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Simmer until the chiles are completely rehydrated and plumped, about 10 minutes. Transfer the chiles to a blender, add 1 cup of the cooking liquid and purée until completely smooth.

5. Uncover the meat, stir in the guajillo chile purée and drop in the toasted avocado leaves. Cover again and continue to simmer until the meat is so tender it falls apart when a fork is inserted, 1 1/2 to 2 more hours. Discard the avocado leaves and season the broth to taste with salt. (At this point, the birria can be cooled to room temperature, then covered and chilled for up to 3 days. If you’d like, you can remove and discard the solidified fat from the broth before reheating on the stovetop.)

6. Transfer the meat from the broth to a platter, discard the bones, shred the meat and moisten with some broth. Season the meat to taste with salt and divide the remaining broth among serving bowls or cups. If you’d like, you can skim the fat from the surface of the broth.

7. To serve, set out the tortillas, onion, cilantro and lime wedges to assemble tacos with the meat and to season the broth. Eat the tacos and drink the broth as a chaser.

Recipe: Birria Ramen

Yield: 1 serving

Total time: 15 minutes

Ingredients

  • 2 cups leftover birria broth, with or without meat
  • Kosher salt, as needed
  • 1 egg
  • 1 (3-ounce) portion instant ramen noodles
  • 1 spring onion, chopped, or 1 tablespoon chopped red or white onion
  • Chopped or torn fresh cilantro or oregano leaves
  • 1 lime, quartered

Preparation

1. Bring a medium pot of water to a boil.

2. If there is meat on the bone in your leftover birria broth, pull it off the bone, shred it with your fingers or a fork, and return it to the broth. In a small pot, heat the broth over medium — if it’s thick, add a splash of water to make it soupy. When it comes to a simmer, taste for seasoning and adjust if needed with salt. Turn the heat down to low.

3. Crack the egg into a small bowl, then carefully slide it into the broth. Once the white is completely set but the yolk is still soft, turn off the heat.

4. As soon as you add the egg to the broth, add the noodles to the boiling water and simmer according to package instructions until cooked, about 2 minutes; drain.

5. Add the cooked noodles to a bowl then gently spoon the egg and broth on top. Garnish with onion and herbs, and top with a squeeze of lime juice.

Recipe: Birria de Res

(Recipe from Josef Centeno, adapted by Tejal Rao)

Yield: 8 to 10 servings

Total time: 2 3/4 hours

Ingredients

  • 2 poblano chiles
  • 5 guajillo chiles, seeded, stemmed and halved lengthwise
  • 5 pounds bone-in beef shoulder, cut into large pieces, or goat or lamb stew cuts on the bone
  • 1 tablespoon fine sea salt
  • 1/4 cup neutral oil, such as canola or grapeseed
  • 1 medium white onion, finely chopped
  • 1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
  • 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons distilled white vinegar
  • 6 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 2 tablespoons finely grated fresh ginger
  • 2 teaspoons dried Mexican oregano
  • 2 teaspoons toasted white sesame seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 4 cloves
  • Fresh black pepper
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 2 fresh or dried bay leaves
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
  • 2 limes, quartered
  • Corn tortillas, warmed

Preparation

1. Heat the oven to 325 degrees.

2. Prepare the chiles: Use tongs to place the poblano chiles directly over the open flame of a gas burner set to high. Cook the poblanos until totally charred all over, turning as needed, about 2 minutes per side. Transfer to a small bowl and cover with plastic wrap so the poblanos can steam. After 10 minutes, use your fingers to pull the blackened skins away from the poblanos, then remove the stems and seeds. Roughly chop the poblanos and set aside.

3. While the poblano chiles steam, place a large skillet over medium heat. Working in batches to cook the guajillo chiles evenly in one layer, flatten the chile halves on the hot skillet and toast them for about 15 seconds, turning once. Put the chiles in a bowl and add 2 cups hot water to help soften them. Set aside.

4. Prepare the meat: Season the meat all over with the salt. Heat the oil in a large, oven-proof pot over medium-high. Working in batches, sear the meat on all sides until well browned, 2 to 3 minutes per side, transferring the browned meat to a large bowl as you work.

5. After you’ve seared all the meat, add the onion to skillet and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden, about 5 minutes. Return all the meat to the pot.

6. Meanwhile, add the tomatoes, vinegar, garlic, ginger, oregano, sesame seeds, cumin, cloves and a few grinds of black pepper to a blender, along with the chopped poblanos, toasted guajillos and the chile soaking liquid. Purée until smooth, scraping down the edges of the blender as needed.

7. Pour the blended mixture into the pot with the meat. Add the cinnamon stick and bay leaves, along with about 4 to 6 cups of water, enough to amply cover the meat.

8. Cover and cook in the oven until the meat is fork-tender, about 2 hours.

9. Divide among bowls and sprinkle with cilantro. Serve with lime wedges for squeezing on top, and a side of warm tortillas.

And to Drink …

This mildly spicy, deeply flavored stew is a warm invitation to a red wine with fresh fruit flavors and few tannins. Many come to mind, especially from the new wave of California producers who have reinvigorated the state’s wine industry. Look for bottles made with carignan, grenache, mourvèdre (sometimes called mataro) or trousseau. You could also try zinfandel, especially those made in a restrained style. Cabernet francs from the Finger Lakes of New York would be delicious, as would cabernet francs in an easygoing style from the Loire Valley of France. Beaujolais and Beaujolais-Villages would be great choices. Try a Rioja crianza or a baga from the Bairrada region of Portugal. Here’s one more option: Mexico has a growing wine industry, primarily in Baja California. If you can find a bottle, try it.

— Eric Asimov

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