If you’re into food TikTok at all, you’ve seen it — dried chilis rapidly de-seeded and chopped, boiled, blended with more spices, and combined with tender chunks of savory meat and onion stewed to perfection, forming a bubbling, almost orange broth so appetizing you can smell it through the screen. Next, the meat is removed, shredded, and placed atop a tortilla that has been dipped in the savory stew’s abundant juices, covered in cheese, thrown on the grill, and folded in half, only to be dipped back into the broth between bites. A delectable bit of food porn if ever there was one.
This is the culinary marvel known as birria tacos. Or, more accurately, quesabirria. A French dip quesadilla of sorts.
The dish looks so appetizing that it’s inspired a whole wave of fusion weirdness — from birria waffles to birria pizza. But while I’m happy to see the birria love buzzing around the internet, I do feel compelled to mention that this isn’t exactly a new dish. For me, growing up in Southern California in a Mexican family, it’s always just been birria, a beef chuck stew reserved for the coldest winter days with a comforting aroma that seems to slip right through the walls of the house. For other Mexicans, it might be birria de chivo, made with goat and reserved for special occasions like a wedding. In the streets of Tijuana, it’s quesabirria, rapidly prepared street food that is grilled on site with speed and efficiency that puts every TikTok version to shame.
To get the rundown on the hottest new food “trend” and why it’s resonating so strongly with an online audience of food lovers right now, we linked up with Gustavo Arrellano, journalist and author of Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America. In our brief phone chat, Arrellano broke down the history of Mexican food trends in America, revealed what great birria ought to taste like, and unloaded some thoughts on how we can truly help the Mexican American food community going forward in a post-Covid world.
Why do you think birria has taken off on social media over the past year?
It hasn’t taken off in the last year. It’s been a phenomenon in Southern California for at least five years! It really started to slowly get national about 2019, before COVID and then in 2020. It just follows the same trajectory that Mexican food in the United States has always followed and I write this in my book, Taco USA. Every decade it seems that something lowercase “new” with Mexican food is sweeping across the country. In The 1890s, it was chili — what we now know in chili dogs, chili burgers and tamales. In the 1980s, it was fajitas. In the 1970s and 60s, it was the margarita.
After the great recession, it was taco trucks, food trucks. Now it just happens to be birria.
Something a lot of people don’t seem to understand about Mexican food is that it’s highly regional. I always hear people say ridiculous things like “in Mexico, they don’t do this or they don’t do that.” But it’s more varied than that. I’ve always been told birria is more of a Jalisco thing. What is it to you?
Well, birria to me is something I’ve grown up with my entire life, except with de res, birria de res [beef]. My family’s from Zacatecas which borders Mexico. So I’ve been eating birria — goats stew is most famous from Jalisco, with res it’s most famous from Zacatecas. So when people started telling me, “Oh, it’s a trend, it’s a new food.” I’m like, what the hell are you talking about? I’ve been eating birria de res my entire life, how can something I’ve eaten my entire life be a trend?
Have you seen any bastardizations of the recipe that have shocked you? Though, if i remember right it’s a fairly simple recipe.
Don’t dismiss birria as a simple recipe! There’s this idea in Mexican food, “Oh it’s simple peasant food.” No, no, no, no. Even the best refried beans take talent. But when it comes to these bastardizations, as some people call it and I have others peers who say, “Oh, you could only eat it in a certain way.” Even in tacos, “that’s not how you really eat it.” For me. If it’s good, why not?
Again, having eaten birria my entire life, I’m not running out of my house to try birria ramen or birria pizza, or birria hamburgers or whatnot. But hey, if I have a chance to eat it, I’ll try it. Sure. But I’m not going out to do so. So I’m not going to say I’ve tried these places, but for me, if it’s good, why not? If people enjoy birria on pizza or birria with ramen, cool. God bless them for that.
Do you have a favorite birria spot?
Well, if it’s to go, there’s a place called El Cabrito which is here in the city of Santa Ana. That’s birria de chivo. If you want birria de res, that’s going to be a spot, it’s also in Santa Ana, but also in LA and El Monte called Burritos La Palma, and they’re the ones who really kicked off the whole birria de res trend. They’re from the same part of Zacatecas where my family’s from Jerez, Zacatecas. The way they serve their birria de res, is just the way I ate it growing up.
For someone who has never had birria de res, what makes it so good?
The meat has to be stringy and soft. It can’t be too tough — not tough, but it can’t have the texture like say carne asada or chicken, but it has to have some texture. It can’t be just a glop of meat. The broth can’t be oily. You have some of this birria de res, it’s completely oily. It’s disgusting. Traditionally, birria comes with salsa macha, but it used to be called salsa de setas, like oil salsa. You put that for the flavor, for the spice, but you can also eat it straight up.
It has to have an enveloping taste, comforting. Birria is best eaten when it’s cold outside cause it warms you up. It has to be a little bit spicy — enough so you know that there are chiles in there — but it cannot be spicy so that it burns you. Not like, “Oh my God, this is too spicy.” It can never get to that, because it’s up to the eater to decide, “How much spice am I going to eat there?”
So it has to be comforting above all, has to have that flavor, more chili flavor than chili spice. You have to put the onions. I think the onions are key. Some people put cilantro, I’m not a big cilantro person. So I don’t, but don’t put oregano, oregano is more for pozole. You put in a squirt of lime that gives it a brightness with the acidity. Then that’s when you put in the salsa.
For birria, I like to put serranos, you chop up some serranos and you throw them in there, you mix it all up. It’s all super good.
It’s interesting that you talk about the comfort food aspect because I feel like the social media interest might have sprung out of the pandemic in terms of people having more time to kind of sit and roast meat and just needing that kind of external comfort.
Yes, you’re seeing more of it on social media because if you want to play that game, it’s a social media star because it seems people love to put messy food on social media. You split the hamburger in half and you see all the meat, you split the burrito in half — I personally find those pictures disgusting. There’s nothing appealing to me about that. Also, you have the stained paper or whatever and I’ll be honest, I’m guilty of that. I’ve stained my reporter’s notebooks with birria or chile when I’m eating. So I’ll admit to that.
But in that sense, especially if you’ve never eaten that food and you see it for the first time, of course, it’s going to be a trend, but it’s important to note that birria de res is not an invention. It’s not something that people quote-unquote “discovered.” Basically people like Columbus — and I’m adding Mexicans to this by the way, not just white people — that all of a sudden realized, “oh my God, birria, it’s such a cool deal. It will be perfect for Instagram or whatnot,” but this is something that Mexicans in Southern California have been eating for 40 years.
Pivoting a little, how do you think we can best support Mexican restaurants in the post-COVID age? There’s already obviously a financial strain on every restaurant, but Mexican food, in particular, has always kind of been undervalued.
Go there. Go eat at those restaurants. Simple as that. Go figure out which one’s going to be most to your palate and go spend money and tip well and go again. And if you like it, go take your friends, get take out. I don’t think there’s anything unique to Mexican restaurants that I wouldn’t say the same about the food industry in general. I’m not going to say, “don’t go to white-owned Mexican restaurants.” I think that’s stupid. Go to the places that you like!
I could tell you Mexican restaurants where the food’s horrible. Should you support them? Well maybe. Maybe you want to contribute to a GoFundMe account, but you shouldn’t feel forced into eating something as a charity case. At that point, just leave them some money. But if there’s a place that you like, go! Go and support and support some more.
I wanted to get your take on this. I was looking at the local prices of birria tacos near me, and it’s something like $1.99 or something for a plate of multiple
It makes me think of this Anthony Bourdain quote that I want to read you really quickly. He said, “Americans love Mexican food. We consume nachos, tacos, burritos, tortillas, enchiladas, tamales, and anything resembling Mexican in enormous quantities. We love Mexican beverages, happily knocking back huge amounts of tequila, mezcal, Mexican beer. We love Mexican people. We employ a lot of them… We demand that Mexicans cook a large percentage of the food we eat, grow the ingredients we need to make that food, clean our houses, mow our lawns, wash our dishes, and look after our children. As any chef will tell you, our entire service economy, the restaurant business, as we know it in most American cities would collapse overnight without Mexican workers.”
As the pandemic ends and we enter the post-Trump era, what does the food industry need to do better in regards to Mexican food?
I think the issue is not so much with Mexican food, but rather the Mexicans that work in the food industry, they’re the ones who are in the back of the kitchen. They’re the ones who are not getting the wages that they deserve. They’re the ones who are getting exploited more often than not. They’re the ones who are picking the crops in the field. They’re the ones who are butchering the animals that we eat. If you really want to be “woke,” when it comes to Mexicans, don’t just worry about the food, worry about the entire damn ecosystem that makes food in the United States.
And in that sense, advocate for them. Advocate for better wages. Advocate for amnesty. Advocate for everything that needs to be done to help make the food world a more equitable place. Not just in what you eat but all across the board from the beginning all the way until the end.