In 2008, Roy Choi rolled out his Kogi BBQ truck onto Los Angeles’s streets. The menu, which consisted of Korean grilled meats in tortillas, raised some eyebrows. But Choi knew how to leverage Twitter to draw in customers and earn national exposure. Each day, the Kogi account would tweet its location, and folks would queue up in long lines. Within two years, Korean taco trucks and shops were thriving across the U.S. Choi was heralded as the inventor of K-Mex, and the style was codified as a legitimate taco category. K-Mex wasn’t novel, though. The hybrid cuisine had been germinating in Southern California, where Korean and Mexican neighbors and workers had been trading ingredients for decades. What Choi did was package it in an attractive manner, use the technology available to him, and take it to a curious demographic.
If there is a Roy Choi of birria de res, it’s likely Teddy Vasquez. Vasquez drove for Uber in order to save enough money to open his namesake Teddy’s Red Tacos in L.A. in 2016. His Instagram photos of birria de res tacos lured hungry customers and propelled Teddy’s Red Tacos to viral success. However, Vasquez wasn’t the first to make birria tacos.
The birria tacos most Americans are accustomed to are crispy; stuffed with shredded, saucy beef and white melted cheese; and served with a side of consommé for dunking the tacos. This style of birria has its roots in Tijuana, where it has been evolving since at least the 1980s. In the border city, a small group of taqueros began to tinker with recipes as birria de res slowly gained popularity, according to cookbook author and journalist Bill Esparza. They decided to test their recipes in Southern California.
By 2018, thanks to viral Instagram posts, birria de res became the must-have taco across the U.S. Now it’s impossible to scroll through social media without encountering the dish. Birria is so popular that our state’s most famous Tex-Mex chain, Taco Cabana, put a birria quesadilla on its menu from December 2021 through January 2022. One could argue the dish has jumped the shark, and I wouldn’t disagree. But birria is too complicated to be dismissed with an idiom. It is far more infuriating and marvelous.
Simply put, birria is a roasted and/or stewed dish served in a stock made of meat drippings. Its origins lie in pre-Hispanic western Mexico, where Mesoamericans cooked marinated small game in a spicy broth. “The spices were used to cover up some of the strong flavors of the meat, especially if it wasn’t good-quality meat,” says Alejandro Escalante, author of La Tacopedia: Enciclopedia del Taco and manager of Revolver Taco Lounge’s Gastro Cantina in Dallas. Most agree that modern birria was created in the Mexican state of Jalisco. It evolved as a matter of necessity. Goats (chivos)—imported by the Spanish during the conquest—reproduced uncontrollably, tearing up farm fields and ruining harvests. The solution was as practical as it was innovative: kill the goats and slowly cook the meat in a punchy rub of chiles (guajillo, ancho, morita, cascabel) and spices (cinnamon, black pepper, cloves, oregano, cumin, bay leaves) in an earthen oven or pit.
However, birria isn’t an ingredient—it’s a preparation that can be made with any protein able to withstand the cooking process. Meat can be roasted or stewed, as previously mentioned. It can also be prepared in a pressure cooker or steamed. It can be wrapped in maguey leaves or not. When roasted, the drippings can be used to prepare the consommé.
Birria in Mexico varies regionally too. In Michoacán, a state bordering Jalisco, cabrito (milk-fed kid goat) is popular. I’ve relished it in small Indigenous mountain towns like Cherán, where locals set up stands near the central market. A slurp from a bowl of birria reduces the noise of the bustling market to a murmur. The rich and slightly gamy stew is that great. It’s much the same in Yurécuaro, where the tacos de birria at the multigenerational Birrieria Don Chano nearly laid me out from joy on the plaza’s cobblestone street. Lamb (borrego) is a secondary traditional filling. Chicken and fish birria are also found in Michoacán. In the state of Colima, birria is often made with pork. Meanwhile, in Zacatecas, bowls of birria de res are offered at weddings and baptisms. In Morelos, the dish is called barbacoa, a cousin of birria whose name is often used interchangeably with “birria.” Nevertheless, as a general rule, birria is reserved for special occasions and weekends.
The first print mention of birria in Texas was in a report of a death in Ciudad Juárez in the December 5, 1925, edition of the El Paso Herald. José Maldonado, the man who died, appeared inebriated when last seen eating a bowl of birria, according to the article. What was in the birria was not clear. Birria was simply defined as “a Mexican edible.” Subsequent citations include references to birria stands in Guadalajara and a 1973 want ad for an investor in a taqueria that would sell the dish in “exquisite authentic southern style.” It wasn’t until a 1975 travelogue was published in the Austin American-Statesman that English-speaking Texans received a simple definition of the dish served in Jalisco: “barbecued lamb with oregano, bayleaf, and a special sauce.”
To my knowledge, the first taqueria to peddle birria de res in its current iteration in Texas is El Remedio in San Antonio. The trailer was opened in 2018 by Joshua Palacios and his wife, Martha Sánchez. Palacios admits the couple drew inspiration from the L.A.-born craze and a recipe adapted from Sánchez’s father. However, Sánchez, a native of Sahuayo, in the Mexican state of Michoacán, says that her hometown is a birria mecca. “Different types of birria are sold on every corner—goat, chicken, beef, all of it,” Sánchez told me for my March 2020 review of El Remedio’s tacos. Like the birrierias before it, El Remedio leveraged Instagram to advertise the featured product. Savvy social media foodies took notice. El Remedio earned hours-long lines.
In 2019, Jerry Guerrero opened the La Tunita 512 trailer in South Austin. The native of San Luis Potosí who was raised in Austin had originally sold a chile guajillo–packed birria de chivo on weekends. It never sold. “It was too funky for customers,” Guerrero says of the goat’s flavor. He soon switched to brisket instead of goat—changing nothing else in the recipe—and took to Instagram. He began selling out in a few hours. Now Guerrero focuses exclusively on birria de res. It’s available in tacos, grilled cheese, ramen, and other forms, alongside cups of soothing consommé with floating strands of tender brisket.
Also in Austin is Donelle Mendoza’s Birria Queen LLC, which opened in 2019. Mendoza, originally from Salinas, California, sells her own beef-chuck birria, based on a birria de chivo recipe passed down through family from the state of Sinaloa in northern Mexico. Birria Queen LLC is run out of Mendoza’s apartment and—much like other similar operations—took off via social media. It’s been another resounding success. The cash-only orders are taken via direct message or telephone, and they lead to lines of cars down the street with customers waiting for for quesabirria tacos, ramen, grilled cheese, burritos plumped up with Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, and consommé. Mendoza stews her birria in a forty-quart pot for twelve hours in a broth of chiles and spices. “It’s really cooking all day, every day,” she says.
Her more traditional birria de res stew is popular with her Mexican neighbors as a hangover cure. Of course, it’s not the best-seller. But, again, it’s all about the ’gram. “A lot of people are into that visual hype,” she says. “They see the cheese and the crispy tacos. So I do mostly sell just the tacos.” Mendoza says she prefers birria with goat, and her goal is to expand so Birria Queen LLC has the capacity to offer chivo. “I am going to have the authentic goat, and I’m going to have the more Americanized version of the beef,” she notes, before going on to explain the dish’s personal significance. “Birria is like home for me and also about bringing people together.” Indeed, birria should be comforting, inviting, and a driver of fellowship.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, that fetching product became a lifeline for a plethora of taquerias. Among them is Maskaras Mexican Grill in Dallas’s Oak Cliff neighborhood. Co-owner Rodolfo Jimenez, a native of Guadajalara, in birria’s home state of Jalisco, isn’t shy about saying birria de res saved his restaurant. Jimenez takes his time with birria, pointing at a sign that warns customers the dish might take up to twenty minutes to serve, and refunds are prohibited. The wait for the tacos is worth it. I’d drink the chile-spiked consommé. Heck, hold the tacos and give me a bowl of the broth filled with shredded brisket, garnished with chopped cilantro and white onions, and finished with a gush of lime juice, and I’ll be content. (I feel the same way about La Tunita 512’s broth.)
Also stellar are the smoked brisket birria tacos at Vaqueros Texas Bar-B-Q in Grapevine. Inspired by an August 2018 trip to Guadalajara, pitmaster-owner Arnulfo “Trey” Sánchez III made a batch for his staff. “I wanted to try borrego, but didn’t have the time to play around with lamb,” Sánchez says. The staff tasting caught the attention of a customer, who begged for a birria taco. Then a group behind her requested the birria, and the folks behind them wanted it too. It was an accidental hit. The smoked brisket quesabirria tacos and accompanying consommé is the most popular dish on the menu. Sánchez refers to those tacos as a gateway that leads customers to try Vaqueros’ other specials on Thursday nights. My personal favorite is the tacos tlaquepaque, slick tortillas cradling smoked brisket barbacoa and covered in a congestion-clearing brown salsa.
The restaurants and tacos listed above are exceptions. Most commercial birria de res dishes taste of clout-chasing desperation. Putting profitable items on a menu is a requirement for a restaurant’s success, but the majority of birria de res options are targeted toward the buzz and not toward producing a quality product. Some birria I’ve tried is as appetizing as chugging used cooking oil through a beer bong. Birria shouldn’t be tough to chew. It shouldn’t be dry. Consommé shouldn’t be confused with creamy tomato soup. It absolutely should not taste of grease. Unfortunately, this is too often the case. This could eventually backfire on taquerias and other food businesses that have placed birria de res tacos on the menu when they otherwise might not have.
My hope is that Sánchez is right, and that the quesabirria taco leads to further exploration. Try the barbacoa de borrego at one of the six Birrieria Aguiñaga locations in North Texas. Houston’s best birria is likely at cash-only Birrieria de Chivo Trudis, between a social hall and a pawnshop. Tacos are available, but the impressive bowls of goat birria are the must-order. If you’d rather hedge your bets, head out to Leonard and Carmen Paredes’s Birrieria El Güero trailer in El Paso. The Paredeses offer beef, goat, and lamb birria, with the last two made in smaller quantities and only available on weekends. When Leonard Paredes whips up batches of birria de chivo or borrego, he makes sure to alert his social media followers. “It’s first come, first served,” he says.
Paredes points out that one of the reasons he and his wife don’t make every version regularly is the cost. However flavorful and preferred, goat is approximately $7.75 per pound versus less-expensive beef. That works out to two dollars more for a plate of four tacos con todo ($12). Bowls of all types of birria are served at 32 ounces. This kiddie pool–size lusciousness is well worth the price point and time. There is no such thing as quick birria. You can’t have birria sitting around all day just boiling. You can’t save it for sale the next day. “Yeah, you can make a Crock-Pot birria, quote, unquote,” Paredes says. “The only problem with that is the meat is never going to get the flavor. The consommé is never going to be that real, legit consommé. You need ten-plus hours for it to make good birria.” And there’s the rub.
Where to Try Birria in Texas
Birria Queen LLC
Hours: Sunday–Tuesday 12–10, Thursday–Saturday 12–10
*Has other locations in Dallas, Garland, Ennis, and Grand Prairie.