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Birria: A complicated, messy jumble that’s simply delicious

  • NEW YORK TIMES
                                From left to right, Javier, Rosio, Violeta and Silverio Moreno outside their East Los Angeles restaurant, Birrieria Nochistlán, which specializes in Zacatecan-style birria on Jan. 30. With infinite variations, birria, the regional Mexican stew is now a social-media star in Los Angeles and beyond.

    NEW YORK TIMES

    From left to right, Javier, Rosio, Violeta and Silverio Moreno outside their East Los Angeles restaurant, Birrieria Nochistlán, which specializes in Zacatecan-style birria on Jan. 30. With infinite variations, birria, the regional Mexican stew is now a social-media star in Los Angeles and beyond.

  • NEW YORK TIMES
                                Birria de Res with warm corn tortillas in New York on Feb. 1. With infinite variations, birria, the regional Mexican stew is now a social-media star in Los Angeles and beyond.

    NEW YORK TIMES

    Birria de Res with warm corn tortillas in New York on Feb. 1. With infinite variations, birria, the regional Mexican stew is now a social-media star in Los Angeles and beyond.

LOS ANGELES >> You go to Birrieria Nochistlan for the Moreno family’s Zacatecan-style birria — a big bowl of hot goat meat submerged in a dark pool of its own concentrated cooking juices.

Right out of the pot, the steamed meat isn’t just tender, but in places deliciously sticky, smudged with chile adobo sauce, falling apart, barely even connected to the bone. It comes with thick, soft tortillas, made to order, and a vibrant salsa roja. The Moreno family has been serving birria exactly like this for about 20 years.

“Sometimes I think we should update our menu,” said Rosio Moreno, 23, whose parents started the business out of their home in East Los Angeles. “But we don’t want to change the way we do things because of the hype.”

The hype for birria is relentless. On Instagram, there is a collective fetishization of cheese pulls in extreme close-ups, and images of tacos half-dipped in cups of meaty broth. The parade of magnificent mash-ups is endless — birria waffles, birria pizza, birria fries, birria pho, birria tortellini. Cooking videos work more like pieces of choreography on TikTok. So, yes, somewhere, a white woman is sharing her “authentic birria” recipe made with boneless beef, packaged bone broth, a few shakes of smoked pimenton and some pureed carrots — the dark side of internet fame, for any dish.

The bright side is that entrepreneurial Mexican and Mexican American cooks have been able to set new businesses into motion all over the country, and use birria to preserve older ones.

Still, it’s complicated: The same hype that has broadened demand for birria has also flattened its perception. Newcomers to the dish will sometimes understand it only as Tijuana-style birria de res — the brothy braised beef with a generous float of exquisite, reddish fat — shredded and tucked into crisp doraditos or quesabirria tacos.

Moreno has lost count of how many customers have walked into her family’s tiny birrieria on East Fourth Street and asked for the cheesy fried tacos that dominate social media. Those tacos are great, she tells them, but there is more than one way to enjoy birria.

IN TRANSLATION, the dish points to chaos, to a deliciously messy jumble. To a certain extent, that has always been true: Birria varies greatly in regional styles.

Author Josefina Velazquez de Leon traveled through Mexico in the 1940s, documenting traditional recipes, and published one for a Zacatecan birria in her 1946 book, “Platillos Regionales de la Republica Mexicana.”

It calls for a whole sheep, rubbed with a paste of lightly roasted chiles, seasoned with cinnamon, cloves, cumin and oregano. Though the ingredient list isn’t so far from a modern version, the technique draws from Indigenous, pre-Columbian traditions.

Once the marinated sheep is in the pot, the top is tightly sealed with masa, pressed around the rim, so no steam can escape, then tucked into a fire pit in the ground to cook slowly. It is served in bowls with a dribble of green tomato salsa and some of the cooking juices — the rendered animal fat, the complex adobo and the steam having fused into an ambrosial pot liquor known as consome.

Los Angeles chef Josef Centeno grew up in Texas eating his family’s beef birria on weekends, and goat birria on more occasions. “When I first started making it, I stuck to my grandma Alice’s recipe,” he said.

But later, working as a cook at Manresa, the fine-dining restaurant in Los Gatos, Calif., he turned the kitchen’s lamb scraps into birria for staff meals. At his own L.A. restaurants, Centeno now makes birria with pork, chicken, lamb on the bone and even tofu, adjusting the recipe each time.

When making vegetarian versions, Centeno builds up more flavor by adding root vegetables and incorporating earthier ingredients, like mushrooms. He sometimes adds a nub of ginger (a common addition) and lemon grass (more unusual), nudging the adobo into the realm of a curry paste.

THE FOUNDATION of his recipe doesn’t change: warm spices, about eight kinds of chiles, a lot of cilantro and canned tomatoes. But with so many variations, even from a single kitchen, it is hard to say exactly what makes birria birria.

It is not an underground pit, inconvenient for most cooks. It is not tomatoes, which some cooks refuse to add. Spice mixtures vary. Vinegar is optional. The braise can be thin and brothy or thick and burly. Even searing the meat isn’t a universal practice.

Many variations are regional, but others have been shaped by expert cooks over the years, based on their tastes and limitations. Someone working with a small cart and one burner, for example, wouldn’t have the space to sear 100 pounds of meat.

“I think of myself as traditional,” said Carlos Jaquez, who doesn’t sear. “But some people will tell you what I do is anything but traditional.”

In the El Sereno neighborhood of Los Angeles, Jaquez runs Birria Pa La Cruda, which he started as a pop-up in his family’s home on Sundays, while he was working during the week at Bestia — the buzzy regional Italian restaurant in downtown Los Angeles.

Jaquez makes birria tortas, birria tacos and a huge, cheesy birria tostada (called a volcan on the menu) and sells them alongside unexpectedly pretty vegetable dishes made from whatever he has picked up at the farmers’ market that week.

“Marrying the delicate braise with the heavy complex flavors — that process is birria,” he said.

BIRRIA DE RES

By Josef Centeno, adapted by Tejal Rao

  • 2 poblano chiles
  • 5 guajillo (or ancho) chiles, seeded, stemmed and halved lengthwise
  • 2 cups hot water, plus more as needed
  • 5 pounds bone-in beef shoulder, cut into large pieces, or goat or lamb
  • 1 tablespoon fine sea salt
  • 1/4 cup neutral oil, such as canola or grapeseed
  • 1 medium white onion, finely chopped
  • 1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
  • 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons distilled white vinegar
  • 6 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 2 tablespoons finely grated ginger
  • 2 teaspoons dried Mexican oregano
  • 2 teaspoons toasted white sesame seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 4 cloves
  • Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 2 fresh or dried bay leaves
  • >> For serving:
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
  • 2 limes, quartered
  • Corn tortillas, warmed

Heat oven to 325 degrees.

Prepare chiles: Use tongs to place poblano chiles directly over open flame of a gas burner (on a stove or gas grill) set to high. Cook until charred all over, turning as needed, about 2 minutes per side. Transfer to a small bowl and cover with plastic wrap to let steam. After 10 minutes, pull off blackened skins, then remove stems and seeds. Roughly chop poblanos and set aside.

While poblanos steam, place a large skillet over medium heat. Working in batches, cook guajillo chiles evenly in one layer. Flatten chile halves in skillet and toast about 15 seconds, turning once. Put chiles in a bowl and add hot water to help soften them. Set aside.

Prepare meat: Season all over with salt. Heat oil in large, oven-proof pot over medium-high. Working in batches, sear meat on all sides until well browned, 2 to 3 minutes per side, transferring browned meat to a large bowl as you work.

Add onion to skillet and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden, about 5 minutes. Return all meat to pot.

Meanwhile, in a blender, combine tomatoes, vinegar, garlic, ginger, oregano, sesame seeds, cumin, cloves and a few grinds of black pepper. Add chopped poblanos and toasted guajillos with their soaking liquid. Puree until smooth, scraping down edges of blender as needed.

Pour blended mixture into pot with meat. Add cinnamon stick and bay leaves, along with water to amply cover meat. Cover and cook in oven until meat is fork-tender, about 2 hours.

Serve in bowls sprinkled with cilantro. Serve with lime wedges for squeezing on top, and a side of warm tortillas. Serves 8 to 10.

WHAT TO DO WITH THE LEFTOVERS

>> Quesabirria tacos: Use excess fat from Birria de Res to fry tortillas in skillet. Top with shredded Monterey Jack cheese and leftover birria meat. Just before eating, add a little onion, cilantro and lime juice to each taco.

>> Birria ramen: Prepare a 3-ounce portion of instant ramen noodles. Heat 2 cups leftover birria broth. Crack an egg in broth; simmer until cooked. Serve with noodles, topped with leftover shredded birria meat, chopped green onion, cilantro leaves and lime wedge.

AND TO DRINK

This mildly spicy, deeply flavored stew is a warm invitation to a red wine with fresh fruit flavors and few tannins. Many come to mind, especially from the new wave of California producers who have reinvigorated the state’s wine industry. Look for bottles made with carig­nan, grenache, mourvedre (sometimes called mataro) or trousseau. You could also try zinfandel, especially those made in a restrained style.

Cabernet francs from the Finger Lakes of New York would be delicious, as would cabernet francs in an easygoing style from the Loire Valley of France. Beaujolais and Beaujolais-Villages would be great choices. Try a Rioja crianza or a baga from the Bairrada region of Portugal.

Here’s one more option: Mexico has a growing wine industry, primarily in the Mexican state of Baja California. If you can find a bottle, try it.

Eric Asimov, New York Times

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