The grated mozzarella bubbles into a jagged arch atop the hot propane griddle outside the garage doors of 4J Brewing Company in Houston. When the edges of the cheese show signs of crisping, the taquero needs to flip what’s become a costra disc destined to cradle birria de res. Joseph Quellar, pitmaster-taquero of JQ’s Tex Mex BBQ, hosts these regular Saturday pop-ups at the brewery, where I tried his brand of homegrown barbecue tacos.
Birria de res, a Mexican stew popularized in Tijuana and spreading like crazy in Southern California, uses beef (res) in place of goat or lamb, the meats commonly employed in birria styles from central and southern Mexico. The trend has made the leap to the Lone Star State, where lamb and goat birria is the default, but it’s undergone a puro Tejas transformation. The beef is smoked, the stew amped up with additional ingredients, and some taqueros are substituting other options for the traditional tortilla. The element that hasn’t changed is the accompanying consommé, made from either the drippings of the meat or the broth the protein is stewed in.
What Quellar’s birria de res lacks in the gamey sweetness of non-beef birria, it makes up for in the mouth-coating richness of a brisket and oxtail combo lathered in a marinade of guajillo, arbol, and ancho chiles balanced by Mexican oregano, bay leaf, cinnamon, peppercorns, salt, whole garlic cloves, and onion. The meat marinates overnight, and the next day it gets put on the smoker for two hours max. It’s then moved to a pot with the reserved marinade and water, which includes bone marrow, and simmers for five hours.
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The extra ingredients add complexity to the dish. “I use oxtail so I can add not just that fatty tender meat, but I am using the bone and marrow for flavor development in the actual broth,” says Quellar, who opened JQ’s Tex Mex BBQ in 2017. “It’s a good way to stand out. I’m in a sea of brisket tacos. There’s a brisket taco on every menu in Texas now.”
When finished, the birria de res is served in tacos, in crunchy or soft tortillas that get a quick dip in the consommé, or in (my preferred vessel) a crisp but pliable costra. The cheese shell, which is sometimes made with the milky, beautifully melting queso Oaxaca that mozzarella approximates, has a mild flavor. It’s also charred around the edges and clamps onto the generous clumps of meat well enough to allow for easy dipping into the consommé that arrives with each order. Vermillion in color and reinforced with extra strands of beef, the consommé glazes everything it touches without overpowering the other components, including the zesty salsa verde. This birria de res is the stuff of modern, hearty, heartwarming Texas-style Mexican meals. It’s something that’s all our own.
“The level of pride, the flavors, and the dishes in Tex-Mex seem to be more distinctive the further west you go from Houston,” Quellar says. “From San Antonio to Southern California, there is still that real sense of pride and tradition within the cuisine itself. The reason I’ve brought things like puffy tacos, crispy tacos, and especially tacos de birria de res is that it has allowed me to show folks here in Houston that Tex-Mex is more than just some generic fajitas, queso, and margaritas.” Quellar goes on to offer a small wedding he’s catering as evidence of birria’s growing popularity in Texas. “They want barbecue for fifty people but birria for one hundred. They literally want double the amount for their guests.”
If other pitmasters and taqueros are paying attention, they’ll start tinkering with birria using different cuts of beef and ingredients. Quellar expects that to happen. “All this is going to be on menus, man, across the board. It’s gonna be to the point where I won’t be standing out anymore. But hopefully, by that point, it will already have done what it’s supposed to do.” What is that exactly? Adding to the Tex-Mex culinary canon, showing Texas and the country that our state’s Mexican culinary traditions are as exciting and rich as ever.