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Why this centuries-old Mexican dish is booming in the U.S.

The popular meat stew birria is finding new fans north of the border. Photo by carlosrojas20

A plate of piping-hot, oven-roasted goat meat is placed in front of me, a crusty top layer sealing in its juicy underbelly. Gorgeous handmade tortillas wrapped in a clean white towel soon arrive, along with a steaming bowl of consommé, a broth with enough tomato and oregano to please the most demanding Mexican grandmother.

I make my first taco, dip it messily in the broth, and bite down, savoring the fragrant clove and oregano and the tender meat, which is almost butter-like, except for the top crust that provides a delightful crunch.

I came to Birriería El Chololo in Tlaquepaque, a town just outside of Guadalajara, Mexico, for birria, the marinated meat dish that’s one of the state of Jalisco’s most iconic foods. The restaurant resides off a sleepy plaza where a few food vendors are serving carnitas and barbacoa to the weekend crowd.

Birria has long been popular in Mexico, but it has recently skyrocketed to fame in the U.S., too. In fact, these days you can find iterations of the dish north of the border that may not be found in Mexico: birria eggs Benedict, birria burritos, birria ramen—even premade frozen birria from Trader Joe’s. People everywhere, it seems, are suddenly in love with the dish.

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Birria’s beginnings

The first birria was created in hardscrabble central Mexican deserts.

Spanish colonizers brought goats to the region more than 500 years ago to produce milk, cheese, and sweets like cajeta (caramel), according to Jalisco food historian Maria Eugenia Toledo Vargas, author of the book De Vaqueros, Comida y Tradición. The animals were valued for their heartiness, and though their meat was muscular and tough, inventive cooks found a way to transform it into something unforgettable.

While goat is the most traditional protein used in this dish, the recipe has been reinvented by cooks across Mexico and the U.S. with beef, chicken, and even fish.

Birria starts with meat slow-cooked in its own juices and a blend of pureed roasted tomatoes, chiles, and garlic. Seasonings can include oregano, clove, cinnamon, ginger, sesame, cumin, white vinegar, salt, bay leaf, thyme, black pepper, and sometimes even beer or pulque, a fermented alcoholic drink.

Once upon a time, you would have found it cooking in a wood-fired oven or wrapped in maguey leaves in an underground pit, and while some still use this method, most cooks these days make birria in a pot on the stove.

Like most Mexican dishes, the exact recipe differs from region to region. At El Chololo, the meat and electric-red broth are served separately, the goat finished in the oven to create a crusty top layer (called birria tatemada).

But you can also find birria prepared as a stew or as chopped meat in a tortilla that turns soggy with broth. There’s also quesabirria, which combines birria and a crust of melted cheese—often in a tortilla. One bite will turn skeptics into birria believers.

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Birria in the U.S.

In the U.S., the offerings are equally enthralling.

At Tuétano Taqueria in San Diego, for example, you can get birria alongside a chunk of bone with warm marrow inside. At Chicago’s Barca Birrieria y Restaurant, Jalisco transplants Margarita Nunez and her son, Osvaldo, stick close to their roots and make goat birria tatemada much like the kind served at El Chololo—an approach that led the Chicago Tribune to credit Barca as having Chicago’s best birria.

Why is birria suddenly everywhere? Some have likened birria to pot roast: another hearty, easy-to-love comfort food. (And who doesn’t need comfort food these days?) Meanwhile, Seattle-based food writer Naomi Tomky cites birria’s familiar, easy-to-find ingredients, and the fact that the dish isn’t spicy, so it doesn’t upset delicate palates.

As I’m devouring my tacos back at El Chololo, I can feel the eyes of the restaurant’s legendary former owner, Javier Torres Ruiz, smiling down at me from a 3-foot-tall portrait in the dining room. He died in 2016, and I wonder what he’d make of birria’s exploding popularity. No doubt he’d be pleased.

By the time I head out the door, the restaurant’s tables are filling up with friends and families who, just like me, came to sample one of Mexico’s many great dishes.

Lydia Carey is a writer and tour guide who lives in Mexico City. You can often find her on the street at Birria Santa Bárbara slurping a delicious bowl of birria.

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