By Chris Mejia
Many beloved dishes the world over can be traced back to peasant cooking, and birria (pronounced “beer-ee-ah” in Spanish), a rich and flavorful meat stew that originates from the Mexican state of Jalisco (capital is Guadalajara) and is said to be a “hangover cure” amongst locals, is a famous example of peasant cooking that’s become synonymous with modern day Mexican comfort food. Travel through Mexico and soon you will learn that almost every “abuelita” (grandmother) guards her family’s secret recipe for birria, passed down through the generations, and rarely found in written form.
True to its peasant origins, the name “birria” comes from the same Spanish word used to describe immaterial things without value or quality. This deep red brothy stew is made from meat in adobo with a blend of chili peppers, garlic, cumin, bay leaves, and thyme cooked for hours (often overnight) at a low heat.
In olden times, prime cuts of meat were only afforded by the wealthy, leaving the secondary cuts and entrails to those only a little more fortunate than the poor. In a culture where every part of an animal’s sacrifice finds a use in the kitchen, Mexican butchers would save even the bones for their poorest customers. Attached to those bones were little morsels of meat that had been skipped over by the butcher’s knife, and of course every good cook knows that the marrow from bones makes the most flavorful broth. Birria was originally made by peasants who stewed bones until the morsels of meat came off in the broth (the bones then removed), resulting in a meaty stew.
Traditionally, birria was made with goat meat (but today you’ll also find birria made from beef, pork, and lamb). Goats were brought to the Americas in the early 1500s by the Spanish and were put to work clearing the land for agricultural uses. Because goats eat virtually everything and need relatively little care (as compared with other domesticated farm animals), goat meat is of the least expensive meats available in central Mexico. While goat meat was looked down upon by the original Spanish settlers as being too tough and having a strong smell, the native people of Mexico embraced this new meat, tenderizing and marinating it, and thus making it palatable and appetizing.
Jalisco can be brutally hot and humid, so peasant farm workers and laborers from this region adopted an early workday, preferring to start work at first light — working hard through the cooler morning hours — and ending their workday before the sun reached its highest (and hottest) point. To this day, if you travel the dusty backroads of Jalisco’s farm country, you find rustic little restaurants with dirt floors dotting the countryside, all serving big bowls of steaming hot birria before daybreak to the local workforce. What better meal to power workers through their day than a protein rich stew served with a big stack of fresh corn tortillas.
While birria is traditionally served in a big bowl and eaten with fresh corn tortillas that are rolled up in one hand for dipping, and a spoon in the other hand, today you’ll find many street carts and stands in Mexico that feature the savory birria meat in tacos (“tacos de birria” in Spanish), often with melted white cheese (“quesataco de birria” in Spanish). These tacos or quesatacos are then grilled on the “plancha” (griddle) until crisp, then served hot to the many customers crowding the “taquero” (taco maker) who eat standing. Typical condiments include chopped white onion, fresh cilantro, hot sauce, and lime wedges. The tradition in Mexico is to order and eat your fill of tacos at the stand or cart, then pay the cashier — you’ll find that this “honor system” is still prevalent in Mexico.
Today birria can be found in most parts of Mexico, and while still considered an inexpensive comfort food, it’s popularity has necessitated stewing whole cuts of meat in addition to the traditional bones. The best birria stands are easily identified by the size of the crowd standing around the taqueros — the bigger the crowd, the better the birria. The best Birria stands in Baja California are no different, and there is no better gauge of quality than that of local popular opinion. Remember that birria is a breakfast food in Mexico, and accordingly the best stands will be completely sold out (and closed) by Noon or 1pm at the latest.
Chris Mejia is an experienced culinary guide, food writer, and self-proclaimed “gastronomer” who has spent years exploring and curating the best of Baja California’s vibrant food scene. You can follow him on Instagram or Facebook at @mrstretchypants