Today’s birria isn’t really birria.
Traditionally, the dish is a soupy, slow-cooked goat stew, made with chilli peppers and enough variety of spices and other components to rival the Mexican sauce, mole. The recipe for birria originated in the state of Jalisco in Mexico’s south and it’s estimated to be centuries old.
“Birria is like a soup or a stew,” says Rosa Cienfuegos, owner of Sydney’s Tamaleria and Itacate. “You get the meat in a bowl and they pour in the soup in front of you. You eat it with a spoon and we always have fresh tortillas on the table. The dish is super, super old.”
Like any recipe that’s centuries old, birria has evolved. The modern-day version that’s trendy and social-media-famous is quesabirria – a beef quesadilla served with a side of consommé for dipping.
According to Eater, birria de res (the beef used in quesabirria) originates from Tijuana, south of the US border. Goat is lean and doesn’t yield much meat, so some cooks swapped it for beef. Eateries began stuffing the meat in a tortilla, adding cheese and frying it like a quesadilla in leftover beef fat. It fit well with the cheese-forward Tex-Mex style popular in America, and as quesabirria gained popularity, social media-savvy fans posted photos and videos of the crisp, gooey, red-tinged tacos dipped in a rich, dark broth. Tiktok and Instagram fame was achieved.
“I don’t think the current birria trend is reflective of traditional Mexican food,” says Kady Simkins, co-owner of Melbourne food truck Dingo Ate My Taco. Kady grew up between Alice Springs and California; her husband and business partner is from Texas. “Our food is more Tex-Mex style, like you find in Austin. We make our birria out of brisket, which is really common in Texas. As for dipping the quesatacos in consommé, that’s more of a Mexican-American thing.”
The cooking method for Dingo Ate My Taco’s birria is similar in principle to the original. “We take beef brisket and cook it for seven to 12 hours with liquid and a paste of eight types of chillies. We pull the meat out, drain the liquid into containers, separate the fat off the top and the remaining liquid becomes consommé.”
That’s where the similarities with Jalisco birria end. Dingo Ate My Taco dips handmade corn tortillas in chilli-laced fat and loads them with brisket and Oaxacan cheese before pan frying. The quesatacos are served with consommé for dipping and are wildly popular.
Although she typically doesn’t use goat in her birria, Cienfuegos, who is from Mexico City, is more of a purist. “This is one of those dishes with a hundred ingredients. There are cloves, cinnamon, cumin, ginger, a combination of chillies like guajillo, ancho, pasilla, and morita. I also add oregano, garlic, onion, pepper and salt. I mix it all with big chunks of meat and the next day it’s ready to cook together in the steamer. The meat becomes super tender, and a stock develops.”
Cienfuegos says finishing the broth is a separate process. “You end up with a very small, concentrated amount of stock and it’s too heavy. I add more water, more flavour, more chillies, and at the end, you’ve got a proper soup.”
Although she says quesabirrias are tasty, Cienfuegos champions authentic Mexican cuisine at her eateries, so she doesn’t serve the Tex Mex-style dish.
Daniel Hanssen of Sydney’s Tacos Muchachos serves quesabirrias among a wide range of other Tex-Mex- and Mexican-style dishes. He keeps the birria recipe closely guarded but shares that the key is in the balance of beef cuts plus the guajillo chilli.
“We use a few different cuts – chuck, rump, short rib, osso bucco – to get a nice flavour profile,” he says. “The soup is brothy, with a bit of fat and bone marrow to give it richness. But really, the guajillo chilli is the hero. It’s a beautiful earthy red chilli that gives a smoky flavour and gives the fat its red colour.”
In even more of a departure from the complex Jalisco stew is birria ramen. In Sydney, this can be found at eateries like Chololo, where the team serves a range of dishes based on its birria meat. “We thought there was so much more that could be done with the soup,” says co-owner Julia Nguyen. “We started adding ramen noodles and it has completely changed the game. The noodles grab the soup and there’s so much flavour.”
Most Mexican eateries making birria in Australia are actually making quesabirria, or another riff on the original Jalisco stew. But the name “birria” seems to have stuck.
For Cienfuegos, semantics are important. “Birria is birria. If someone thinks they’re making birria but it’s got cheese, they should know they’re making something 100 per cent different.”
Hanssen agrees, but says the evolution of the dish is important and something to celebrate. “It’s too easy to write off a food type as ‘not the original’. I think the beauty of food is that it’s a constant evolution that connects cultures and people.”
Where to eat birria or quesabirrias
Dingo Ate My Taco, Mamasita, Superchido
Buen Taco, Chololo, Chula, Itacate, Tacos Muchachos, Tamaleria
South Austin Cantina
Beefy Birrias, Loco Chino
La Cabana, La Cholita and Don Birria
Find more in Broadsheet’s Explainer series.