Who doesn’t love birria? The popularity of the brothy Mexican stewed beef has reached new heights recently, thanks to social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram, where videos of tacos, quesadillas and all sorts of other foods doused and dripping with mouthwatering birria consommé have seemingly become everyone’s favorite genre of food porn. Just look at this stuff:
If that doesn’t make you hungry, we probably can’t hang out.
In fact, birria love has gone so mainstream that it’s even become fast food. From now until June 1st, El Pollo Loco will be offering birria tacos, burritos, and quesadillas, complete with a cup of birria broth for dipping, at its locations nationwide.
What is birria?
If you don’t spend time a lot of time on foodTok or in Mexico or in the Southwestern part of United States, you may need a course in Birria 101. Let us break it down for you. The dish, most commonly associated with Jalisco, Mexico, is a braise seasoned with garlic, dried chiles, cumin, bay leaves, adobo, onion, and traditionally, goat meat. The resulting stewed meat and broth is red and earthy in color, with a flavor layered with smokey and spicy top notes hinted at in the tender meat and concentrated in the lucious broth — ideally combining in one perfect bite to make sweet comfort food love.
The version popular on TikTok is actually what is called quesabirria, and typically involves dipping a tortilla in birria consommé, frying it, and serving it loaded with melted cheese and birria-style beef, or birria de res. Trust me, it tastes as amazing as it looks. Goat-based birria is known as birria de chivo. Not surprisingly, El Pollo loco’s birria consists of the far more American-palate friendly birria de res, or beef-based birria (side note: Zacatecas is home to some of the finest birria de res).
As fans of birria, we’re psyched to get our hands on this stuff, but also… skeptical. A food word or genre hitting the mainstream is often the first step towards eventually being watered down or rendered meaningless. Good birria takes time and patience, and this is fast food we’re talking about. Are we really to believe El Pollo Loco is slow-braising beef in a chicken kitchen? Suffice it to say we have our doubts. Though we want to believe.
The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly Of El Pollo Loco’s Birria Menu
Remember that healthy skepticism? Turns out that wasn’t misplaced. This stuff, I’m sorry to say, is an embarrassment to good birria everywhere. But let’s start with the good. El Pollo Loco’s birria de res is tasty. It’s tender, juicy, and flavorful, just like the chain’s flame-grilled chicken.
It has an earthy flavor full of delicious spices like oregano, smokey paprika, and garlic. I like it a lot and it works well enough in the three forms presented here: as burrito, taco, and quesadilla fillings. If birria was just a taco or burrito filling, that might be enough. Real birria is more than that, even if you’d never know it from this watered down version.
The El Pollo Loco crunchy birria taco comes with two tacos per order and features shredded meat, onions, cilantro, and cheese, served alongside a cup of broth for dipping. Notably, the tortilla is not dipped in birria or fried on a stove-top like actual quesabirria, which seems to reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of how social media’s birria obsession began in the first place.
Those images — of juicy, red-stained tortillas with gooey strands of cheese connecting mouth to taco — are what had us all hooked. El Pollo Loco’s birria tacos, on the other hand, are just sad to look at. They’re not fried in the juice, the tacos are dry, and you’re meant to dip between bites. The birria broth itself is glossy and shimmery, not really adhering to the tacos you dip in it, and it both looks and tastes as if you’re dipping your tacos into seasoned oil, not a rich and spicy stew packed with flavor.
But perhaps the most frustrating thing about this taco is that, judged in a vacuum, it’s actually not bad. It’s pretty damn tasty, all things considered, and would definitely be in the running for one of the best fast food crunchy tacos around. It’s just that calling it “birria” creates an expectation it doesn’t come close to fulfilling. It only makes that gap between expectation and reality stand out even more starkly.
And of its three iterations, the taco is by far the strongest.
The birria burrito consists of birria de res, onions, cilantro, Spanish rice, cheese, and cabbage. The burrito on its own is already pretty damn delicious, combining earthy oregano flavors with paprika, garlic and onions, all intensified when doused in the birria juice. But there’s a structural problem here: it’s not very easy to dip a burrito without your food falling out after you’ve already bitten into it. And because this glossy broth doesn’t adhere to the outside well anyway, you’re better off just pouring the juice into the top. This is, as you might imagine, kind of a mess, and not really worth it for what you get in flavor.
This brings us to the worst menu item of the three: the birria quesadilla.
Now before I talk my trash let me just say: I love this quesadilla. Layers of tender juicy meat, melted cheese, cilantro, onion, and fresh avocado are all sandwiched together inside of a warm grilled tortilla. Every bite is bursting with rich savory flavors, and that avocado slice adds a real freshness to the whole thing.
Yet because of its shape, it’s totally un-dippable. And dipping is kind of the whole point here, isn’t it?
In order to make this work, you either have to cut pieces from your quesadilla with a knife and fork like you’re some kind of maniac, or pour the birria into a small, inch-wide slit between bites — which is guaranteed to cover your hand in oily birria juice by the end of your meal.
The Bottom Line:
El Pollo Loco had a really great idea here they just couldn’t stick the landing. Any of the three dishes are absolutely worth trying if you already love El Pollo Loco. They each taste great in their own right — they’re spicy, flavorful, and smoky. But if you’re here because you’re craving something resembling birria, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. El Pollo Loco claims they’re the first fast-casual restaurant to add birria to the menu, so maybe it falls to the research and development team at some other chain to work the kinks out before the next one.
Find you nearest El Pollo Loco here.