- Ron Bechtol
Make that a mega moment. From humble origins in the Mexican states of Jalisco and Michoacan as a rustic and chile-laden stew — usually of goat or long-in-the-tooth lamb — a new and improved birria, by way of California, is now the stuff of 30-minute-y-mas lines. It can even come in fried tacos stuffed with cheese or paired with ramen.
Though you might not know it from the current craze, San Antonio has long had worthy sources of birria, although crafted from recipes that didn’t make a detour through the Sunshine State. Goat birria is an enduring staple at Cascabel Mexican Patio in Southtown, while Guajillo’s on Blanco uses lamb in its preparation. Both are served with corn tortillas and condiments for assembling your own tacos, should you choose.
But it’s also good to admit that food changes over time. I’m leaving the birria and ramen combination in the jury’s-still-out column for the time being. However, with cheesy beef birria challenging goat and lamb at many locations in San Antonio, it’s worth investigating the new crop of restaurants serving it up.
There will likely be a line at the El Remedio truck on Culebra Road. The ordering process is efficient, though, and you’ll be given a buzzer to alert you when yours is ready. Among the offerings is a birria tatemada, and though that recipe is typically thought to have originated in Jalisco, El Remedio’s roots are in Michoacan via Los Angeles. Clearly, multiple influences may have crept in.
What you get is a bowl of shredded beef birria, a separate cup of mildly flavorful caldo and a brace of gorgeous corn tortillas that have been bathed in the caldo before being griddled. The beef itself is a little fatty, so it appreciates the accompanying salsa and lime and the comfort of the tortillas. Think of the caldo as a chaser.
El Remedio also offers the currently crave-worthy quesitacos — sometimes called quesatacos — served in griddled tortillas filled with birria and melty cheese. Since this rendition isn’t as chile- and spice-forward as many, the cheese and frying are welcome. So is the addition of chopped onion and cilantro — just pry open each taco, insert and eat.
Operating out of a former take-out pizza joint on South Presa Street, Birria Barrio leads with what they call quesabirria, served with consomé. Theirs is a good balance of shreddy beef and melty queso, and the salsas are potent. You can dip your taco in the modestly spiced consomé — a ritual I don’t quite get, but whatever floats your bowl. On the menu, too, is a Keto taco with a “queso tortilla.” There’s also Tapatio brand spicy ramen — available at your local Walmart — with added birria. I remain unconvinced when it comes to that offering.
Birrieria Estilo Jalisco hides behind a drive-through clinic on Nacogdoches Road. Top of menu there is a version of two quesabirrias, one soft, one crispy. I failed to specify, so can only assume that “soft” is the default. The handmade corn tortillas are fragrant and good, but not much is gained by adding unmelted cheese to the birria inside. Maybe go for crispy. The beef-only birria burrito adds beans, so it’s marginally more satisfying.
Best of all, though was the birria “plate” with goat. What you get is a bowl brimming with chivo — yes, a few bones, but some cracked so the marrow contributes — afloat in a rust-colored broth. The flavor might not be as chile-heavy as the color suggests, but the spicing, popping with cinnamon, makes this a dish worth driving for.
Back on Culebra, just a few blocks west of El Remedio, sits longtime restaurant Birrieria y Taqueria Ay Arandas. Its menu board, offering cow in forms from brains to eyeballs, deserves some kind of cultural commendation. Sitting apart is the apparently new placard touting quesatacos, but I was already up to my own eyeballs in those, hence my order of birria de borrego, translated as “stew lamb chops.” With its elevated levels of both cinnamon-heavy spicing and chile, it was one of the better bowls I tasted, no cheese required.
Quesatacos did make one final appearance in this investigation, these at the hands of Chef Ernie Bradley of Cherrity Bar’s Kuriya Ramen. With a foot in both culinary cultures, if anyone ever wanted to make the ramen-birria arranged marriage work it’s certainly Bradley.
The chef is developing a truck concept called La Tienda de Birria, set to open at 930 N. New Braunfels Avenue, and he’s been testing it at pop-ups, including the Noche de Birria that I attended at Dorcol Distilling & Brewing in September.
Not unsurprisingly, his is the cheffiest — in the best sense — rendition of the bunch. Bradley applied asadero and manchego cheeses to crispy and lacy effect — and the filling is goat, cementing my preference for the randy carne.
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