Birria, a slow-cooked, spiced meat dish that originated in Jalisco state on the Pacific coast of central Mexico, is the latest culinary gift from our neighbors to the south.
Mexicans developed birria centuries ago as a way to wring the gaminess out of goat meat. It was typically served as a stew or in a bowl of consommé, but when the dish migrated north to Tijuana, locals took to wrapping the shredded meat in tacos and then dipping the whole thing in beef consommé for a Mexican version of the French dip sandwich.
Birria took the Los Angeles food scene by storm when it arrived there a few years ago, and now it’s found in big cities across the country.
A vacant lot on Fourth NW is Albuquerque’s unlikely birria center. That’s where the Birrieria y Tacos Alex Tijuana Style food truck holds court seven days a week. The truck – actually a trailer pulled by a pickup – has had a peripatetic existence, moving up and down Fourth Street before settling in a few months ago across from Bob’s Burgers, a quarter-mile south of Montaño. Like most food trucks, it relies on social media to promote itself and keep customers informed about specials and hours. Its Facebook page has numerous videos of food being prepared. My favorite one shows a man blistering dozens of chile peppers in preparation for making salsa.
A recent lunch hour found a steady trickle of customers lining up at the bright red trailer, its side emblazoned with a cartoon of a smiling, sombrero-wearing stack of meat on a spit. There were construction workers on lunch break, a gaggle of teens and a guy waiting for his car to get cleaned at the neighboring car wash. Spanish was spoken freely.
Like most other places these days, the birrieria eschews goat and lamb and makes its signature dish with more affordable, easier-to-find beef. Other meat options include al pastor and carne asada. You can get the meats in tacos, heaped over french fries or in consommé with ramen ($13). The most expensive item on the menu is libra de carne ($25), a family-style meal that comes with a pound of meat, tortillas, consommé, onions and guacamole.
Perhaps none of the menu choices showcases the birria better than the quesa tacos ($4). The large corn tortillas, rusty red from a dip in the consommé, are placed on the stovetop and filled with shredded beef and cheese. After folding, each taco gets doused with a ladle of beef consommé as it fries on the grill. The result is gooey, juicy, greasy and delicious. Seasonings such as cinnamon and cumin reflect the influence of Arabic culture on Mexico cuisine. It’s one of the best tacos in the city.
The regular tacos ($2.50) are served open-faced on two small corn tortillas, the meat covered in a pile of onion, cilantro and a beautiful guacamole. Like the birria, the terrific al pastor was redolent of Middle Eastern spices, with an intriguing note of sweetness from the pineapple juice marinade.
The mulita ($6), a close relative of the quesadilla, is a sandwich made with two crispy tortillas around meat, onion, cilantro and guacamole. Served with lime, onions and a blistered pepper, it’s a little tidier than the quesa taco.
The birrieria also turns out a massive torta ($10) with meat and diced onions embedded in a layer of melted cheese on a roll the size of a small pizza. Filled with chunks of marinated carne asada, it tastes like a Philly cheesesteak, and there’s enough to feed two easily.
The food isn’t particularly spicy; no matter, because the housemade salsa rojo and salsa verde that come with it pack a wallop.
Drinks include Mexican soda ($3) and agua fresca ($3). The day I was there they were serving agua de pepino, a mix of cucumber, sugar and lime that was tart and cooling, a perfect accompaniment to the food.
The birrieria takes cash only. You order at one window, get a number and then pick up your food at a second window. The two women running the operation that day were friendly and efficient, and my food came out in about five minutes.
My only complaint is that there weren’t enough napkins in the bag. It’s a small inconvenience, and anyway, food like this is worth risking a little spatter on your clothes.