Two years ago, TikTok exploded with videos about birria tacos. Between 2019 and 2020, the number of video views for #birria increased by 8,900 percent—which means over 284 million views; birria taco fans grew at a steeper curve than TikTok itself.
Suddenly, social media was bombarded with Instagram-friendly images of tacos half-submerged in cups of consommé, stringy cheese pulls, and glistening red tortillas. People like me, who didn’t even know what birria was yet, started craving the cheesy dipped taco and diving down rabbit holes to find the best recipe.
Mexican restaurants that were wise enough to put birria on the menu managed to sidestep pandemic doom—and instead saw lines extend down the block for their new item. When the Birria-Landia truck opened in Queens in 2019, the birria taco had become the most sought-after Mexican dish in New York City.
The Story Behind Birria
Birria originated in Jalisco, Mexico as a goat stew. This dish was prepared in the “barbacoa” style—the meat was marinated and wrapped in maguey leaves for 12 hours. It was then simmered for hours in a clay pot or underground until the meat was juicy and tender. The resulting broth was usually mixed with roasted tomatoes and spices—although when the dish spread to other regions, each region—and even each family—added its own mix of chiles, spices, and aromatics.
Centuries later and hundreds of miles north in Tijuana, the birria stew was transformed into a taco using beef—made similarly to the goat stew from Jalisco. The tortilla was dipped in the fat from the beef stew, stuffed with the meat and sometimes cheese, then grilled until crunchy. It was served with (but not necessarily dipped into) the stew liquid, or consommé.
Soon after, in 2015, unemployed and struggling Los Angeles chef, Teddy Vasquez, went down to Tijuana and got schooled in birria. He returned to LA to open Teddy’s Red Tacos, a weekend taco stand. Not only did his truck hit big but his videos on Instagram—which show birria tacos being dipped in the consommé—went viral. Soon California went crazy for birria tacos—a trend that then made its way via social media and savvy chefs to the East Coast.
The truth is, birria—though not necessarily the cheesy birria tacos dipped in broth—has been in New York for decades. While Birria-Landia has been credited with bringing the birria taco to New York in 2019, Taqueria Coatzingo in Queens has been serving a beef birria stew for almost 20 years. And the birria phenomenon is not the first Mexican dish to shoot the moon. In 2005, mole was on everyone’s hot list; but because birria emerged at a time of heightened social media, it seemed to gain legendary status.
Where to Eat Birria in New York
These days, Teddy Vasquez has cooked for John Legend and Chrissy Teigen, and is planning six more birria spots in LA. There’s also now birria ramen, fish birria and of course, an Instant Pot version. In the last few years, birria has shown up on menus all over New York, all of which might make purists worry that it’s in danger of straying too far from its roots.
But Chef Stephanie Ramos, who has a YouTube Mexican cooking channel, “Views on the Road,” says she’s not concerned. “They’ve tried to colonize the cuisine and it backfires. because you’re always going to have those mom-and-pop places, whether it’s in the States or in Mexico, that are traditionalist that refuse to change, using the same pot their papa used and that his granddaddy used,” she says.
And in fact, many of the most notable spots for birria tacos in New York are small shops and food trucks, including, of course, Birria-Landia, a truck in Jackson Heights. The enterprise was so successful that the owners opened another truck in Williamsburg. Chofi Tacos in Union City, NJ, which started out as a Smorgasburg stall in Williamsburg, specializes in birria tacos that are heavily stuffed and drenched in juices. On food truck row in Long Island City, the mostly Pueblan Chinelos Birria taco truck sells meaty birria tacos in threes—with consommé on request. And Birria LES, a tiny storefront on the Lower East Side, turns out super juicy birria tacos served with a chunky broth for dipping.
What is Birria?
Birria is now ubiquitous—but also more mysterious. Chefs all over the country are making their own versions of the dish—some using braises, others using sears. Some use tomatoes, or vinegar, swapping different chiles and even different meats.
At Bar Ama in L.A., chef Josef Centeno uses oxtail in his tomato-infused birria and serves it with flour tortillas on the side. Manhattan’s Las Delicias Mexicanas makes birria as a lamb stew and serves it with corn tortillas. Chef and cookbook writer J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, recently YouTubed a version of birria tacos that he learned from a friend in Jalisco. He used lamb neck meat and griddle-pressed some of the shredded meat (that had been cooked with chiles) to top his consommé. In other words, it’s increasingly hard to define birria even for birria makers.
But at its most basic level, birria is a meat stew bathed in Mexican chiles and spices, which impart a deep, red hue. The original goat or lamb recipes now call for a mixture of both fatty and leaner beef cuts. According to José Moreno, head chef and co-owner of Birria-Landia, the key is beef bones. If you can’t get beef shank from a butcher, you should use both short ribs and another cut like top round or brisket—which can braise for hours and shred easily. (Moreno likes to cook the stew for at least four hours.)
“The base of my birria is guajillos. You cannot make birria without guajillos,” Moreno says. He likes to supplement the earthy, sweet guajillos with some moritas—jalapeños that have been smoked and dried. Jenny Martinez gets slightly more chile-happy in her popular Tik Tok recipe for birria: She uses 20 Anaheim chiles, 6 puya chiles, 2 pasilla chiles, and (optional) 5 Chile de Arbol. She stems and seeds the peppers and boils them for 30 minutes before making the stew. Most recipes boil the beef and pureed chiles in water or broth with onion, garlic, bay leaves, oregano, cloves, cumin, and chile powder (or some variation of those). Some also add vinegar and carrots
Birria tacos generally use corn tortillas that are heated then dipped in the thin layer of fat that floats to the top of the birria. They are then filled with meat (and cheese such as Monterey Jack, mozzarella, or Oaxacan) and thrown on the griddle, giving them their addictively crispy exterior. The tacos are served with diced onions, cilantro, lime, and a consommé dip on the side, and according to experts, should be deliciously messy.
Birria Taco Recipe
The good news is that there are thousands of YouTube and TikTok videos for guidance.
The bad news is that everyone seems to have a different method.
If you’re anything like me, you read as many authentic recipes as you can find and then filter the best elements of each to create your own version—which is what we’ve done here.