Taco lovers throughout the United States have cast aside popular fillings like al pastor and carnitas in favor of a tender stewed meat infused with spices and chiles called birria.
Images of a hand dipping these shredded beef tacos into rust-colored liquid dominate social media. Local restaurants that have noticed and responded to this meaty trend by adding birria to their menu have been able to increase their food sales during a challenging time.
“Five years ago, it was unusual to see it in a restaurant. Now it’s everywhere,” Bryan Hernandez said. His family owned a food truck in Portland before opening the Vancouver restaurant Los Alambres (6331 E. Mill Plain Blvd.; 360-859-3747) in November 2019.
The family noticed that birria was popular so they began serving it at their truck six years ago as a special. Three years later they added it as a regular menu item.
“Birria is originally from Guadalajara. We’re from Mexico City. It’s not popular there. I didn’t try it in Mexico, but my mother did,” Hernandez said.
His mother, Micaela Flores, tried to remember that flavor as the family experimented with recipes for a month before finding the right recipe.
For their birria, they use three types of beef — chuck roll, shoulder and Flintstone. Flintstone is named after the 1960s cartoon because of the big bone in the middle that resembles something Fred Flintstone would eat.
“You can’t make it with lean meat,” Hernandez said. “You need some fat because if it’s too lean the meat doesn’t stay together.”
To begin, the meat is cooked on low heat while garlic, onion and chiles are roasted separately. After an hour, the aromatics, spices, and chiles are added to the beef. The stew cooks for another two hours until tender. The chile mix includes guajillo and just a bit of chile de arbol. Chile de arbol are small but pack a lot of heat. They’re used sparingly for birria at Los Alambres to add just a whiff of fire.
The taco special comes with four birria tacos and a side of consommé. Los Alambres also offers a pot of birria for parties. Three days’ notice is required for a party-sized stew.
Su Casa Marquez (5406 N.E. Fourth Plain Blvd.; 360- 448-6127), also recently added birria to the menu.
“We decided to add birria to our menu due to the rise of demand from popular social media platforms such as TikTok and Instagram. We were struggling due to the pandemic when it came to sales so we decided that it’d be best to take our shot at making the now popular dishes,” said Jovany Nguyen, manager of Su Casa Marquez.
Owners Maurilia Marquez and Censencio Martinez dug up an old family recipe and added a few birria options to the menu. The birria plate comes with the stewed meat served with a side of rice and a side of beans. Birria cheese tacos are made with store-bought tortillas and have two layers of cheese, meat, cilantro and onion. The queso birria is twice as large as the birria cheese tacos. It’s similar to Su Casa Marquez’s corn quesadilla. The tortilla is fresh, handmade and twice as big as the tortillas for the taco. It’s filled with birria, cheese, cilantro and diced onions. The consommé can be ordered as a side with any of the dishes.
On Saturdays and Sundays, birria tacos can be found at The Taco Dudes stall at the Vancouver Farmers Market. Owners Michael Casteneda and Francisco Garcia have known each other for 20 years. They’ve worked in the food industry for over a decade doing everything from fine dining to catering jobs serving 10,000 to 20,000 people. During the pandemic they decided to start a catering business and open a taco truck called The Taco Dudes with another food industry professional, Christina Sims.
“We’re all from the central valley of California and grew up with street food,” Casteneda said. “Birria was something we wanted to do. We have our own style and we hope to set ourselves apart.”
The Taco Dudes’ version of birria is made with chuck roast cooked for 10 to 12 hours with a mix of guajillo, and California and pasilla chiles. An order comes with two tacos topped with garlic tomatillo salsa, pickled onions, cilantro and a red sauce made with the same type of chiles used to make the stew. A side of consommé comes with each order.
During a bleak year for the hospitality industry, birria-mania has provided a new direction for these dudes.
“We’re all in the same industry. After the restaurants closed, we were unemployed,” Sims said. “The success of Taco Dudes is leading us in a different direction.”
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