The Birria Boom Is Complicated, but Simply Delicious

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.”

From left to right, Javier, Rosio, Violeta and Silverio Moreno outside their East Los Angeles restaurant, Birrieria Nochistlán, which specializes in Zacatecan-style birria. Credit…Rozette Rago for The New York Times

The hype for birria is relentless. On Instagram, there’s 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.

The Moreno family has served goat birria this way for more than 20 years, with freshly made corn tortillas and a vibrant salsa roja.Credit…Rozette Rago for The New York Times

Ms. 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’s more than one way to enjoy birria.

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

The 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 çağdaş version, the technique draws from Indigenous, pre-Columbian cooking traditions.

Evvel 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’s 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.

At Bar Lakin, Josef Centeno serves a thickly sauced birria inspired by his grandmother Alice’s recipe, made with oxtail, beef, lamb and even tofu.Credit…Rozette Rago for The New York Times

On a recent, rainy weekend in Los Angeles, the chef Josef Centeno had put oxtail birria on his menu at Bar Lakin. 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.

Mr. 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, Calif., 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.

Mr. Centeno learned to make birria from his grandmother, who learned it from her sister.Credit…Rozette Rago for The New York Times
Birria goes on his menu as soon as the weather cools in Los Angeles.Credit…Rozette Rago for The New York Times

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, Mr. 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’s hard to say exactly what makes birria birria — even for birria makers.

It’s not an underground pit, which isn’t convenient for most cooks, and definitely isn’t portable. It’s 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 Mr. Centeno — getting it deeply brown all over to build flavor — isn’t a universal practice.

As Ms. Moreno put it, there’s 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.”

Carlos Jaquez, formerly a cook at Bestia, started his birria business as a weekend pop-up out of his family’s home.Credit…Rozette Rago for The New York Times

In the El Sereno neighborhood of Los Angeles, Mr. 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.

Mr. 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.

Mr. Jaquez now sells quesabirria tacos, birria tortas and other birria-focused dishes from his truck parked in El Sereno.Credit…Rozette Rago for The New York Times

He had an uncle who cooked birria whenever the Lakers won a championship, and to research the dish, Mr. 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,” Mr. Vasquez said. “I knew birria as this big plate of goat with a strong aftertaste, as something for older generations.”

But what Mr. 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 Mr. Vasquez, who got motivated by watching Tony Robbins and Les Brown clips on YouTube. “I thought, what if I take this back to L.A.? 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.

The Instagram-famous deluxe plate from Teddy’s Red Tacos presents birria de res in a variety of different textures.Credit…Rozette Rago for The New York Times

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.

Mr. 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 Mr. 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 says. “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, Mr. 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.

Mr. 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.”

Recipes: Birria de Res | Birria Tacos With Chile Broth | Quesabirria Tacos | Birria Ramen

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