The list of possible origins of birria is longer than a Mississippi preacher’s Sunday sermon
Mexican folklore claims that the tiny western state of Colima on the Pacific ocean is where birria was invented in the 16th century.
Legend has it that a shepherd had to abandon his goats in a cave and flee for his life due to a volcanic eruption. When he returned he found his herd had been trapped and cooked by the molten lava.
Being ever resourceful, the unknowing birriero (birria cook) set about carving off the stewed, charred meat so he could have a feast of goat. Once the tortillas were made and the hot sauce concocted he was set to make the best of what had been a bad situation.
Birria was thusly born.
Frequent historical eruptions at Volcán de Colima date back to the 16th century and lend veritas to the lore of the community being the birthplace of the dish
The word birria itself derives from the onomatopoeic berrear which in Spanish means to bleat or bawl.
In the interest of brevity this article will simply address the contemporary and historical importance of birria, and how it came to Baja California and Texas.
Old school birria cooks in the Jalisco region of western Mexico are canonical when it comes to sourcing their chivo (old goat) or cabrito (young goat) although there is a separate camp that claims borrega (mutton) is the north star that guides them to birria renown.
I’ve also found pork, beef and even chicken claimants but they would be scoffed at by the traditionalists of birria culture.
It must be said that birria has a thousand mothers with each claiming primacy.
For the past two years I’ve been venturing to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico to explore the city’s birria scene of taco carts, food trailers, taquerias, loncherias, pool halls, bingo stadiums, flea markets, bus stations and bowling alleys.
After all, Jalisco state, where Puerto Vallarta is located, is ground zero for the centuries-old tradition of birria gastronomy.
Each cook in the aforementioned small cafes has his or her own birria strategies. Common ingredients are chile arbol or guajillo, softened in hot water and then blended with variations of garlic, onions, cumin, ginger, oregano, cloves, cinnamon, thyme, bay leaves, salt and pepper.
These cooks are all well-steeped in birria culture and each has a “secret recipe” and/or cooking technique that has been handed down across generations.
As you walk along the cobblestone paths, cement sidewalks, or blacktop back alleys you’ll know you’ve found a birria restaurant when you see a goat or sheep skull nailed to a pole near the taqueria.
In the olden times the heads would’ve been cooked with fiery coals underground in a chamber lined with agave leaves in the fashion of barbacoa but nowadays it’s much more common for the goat or sheep to be cooked in either clay vessels or good old fashioned aluminum pots.
It is exceedingly rare but if one is lucky you may still find mixiotes, small packets of birria, wrapped then cooked and served in maguey leaves.
These humble joints are known as birrierias.
While tacos are the most ubiquitous way to consume birria there are certain loncherias that serve it in terracotta bowls called cajetes. The diner eats the birria in the fashion of gumbo with rice lining the bowl and bread or tortillas served on the side.
Escabeche is the typical garnish and may include a litany of house-pickled vegetables. You may construct your own tacos then dip them into a small ramekin of rich consommé served on the side.
Birria tatemada is a regional subspecialty wherein the birria is cooked in the modern fashion but then returned to an oven at a frightening heat til the meat is nicely charred and crusted with tawny, tasty bits.
La Feria Nacional de la Birria in Ciudad Guzmán, is a regional festival where renowned birria cooks descend from the surrounding rural areas to cook ancient derivations of their particular style of the dish.
Keep in mind that over the centuries indigenous Americans, Spaniards and African slaves blended their cultures together across the Americas. These Mestizos are some of the best cooks on the planet and their prowess is on full display viewed through the lens of birria
And as you may gather, there is a strong cooking culture amongst these peoples. Birria is well-known to the cooks of the Mestizos.
But how did birria establish such a firm foothold in Jalisco that it was able to expand northward, first to Baja California and later to Texas?
The goat industry has been a vital part of Mexican culture since the Spanish colonization of the 16th century. The Spaniards utilized goats to clear off vegetation so the land could be better used for cultivation. In that era, goats became the dominant livestock species. Goat meat was used to feed the landowners’ workers and goat fat was melted down and implemented in the local candle industry to illuminate the mines of the region.
Small-holder goat husbandry for both subsistence and commerce is widespread. The milk of the goats is used to make cajeta (caramel) and the meat is harvested and used in the production of birria in Colima’s neighbor Jalisco; traditional cabrito in Nuevo León; barbacoa in the State of Mexico, Hidalgo, and Mexico City and the mole de caderas in Puebla, Guerrero, and Oaxaca.
Agroecology has been part and parcel of these chiveros’ lives across generations.
Bear in mind, to some, birria is a process or a method not an ingredient. There is even fish birria in Michoacán State.
As natives of Jalisco migrated northward towards the US these Jalisciences settled into Tijuana and brought their gastronomy along with other cultural traditions. The further you get from the goat-rearing regions of central Mexico the more expensive these chivos become. The subsequent development of other proteins in the birria-making process is largely an economic factor.
The Ferdinand Magellan of Tijuana’s notorious beef birria is one Don Guadalupe Zárate, a native of Coatzingo, Pueblo, Mexico, who migrated to Baja California in the 1950s. Zárate opened a taco stand serving the then-unknown dish to the eaters of the region. It would prove wildly popular but it would take decades before the international cross-border boom of birria culture took place.
By the late 60s, Zárate had saved enough money to move his taco stand to the beating heart of Tijuana food culture. Las Ahumaderas, a wildly popular row of taco carts, taquerias and food stands. As the years passed other entrepreneurial Mexican cooks noted Don Guadalupe’s popularity and began making their own versions of birria.
The young US chefs who routinely visited Tijuana from San Diego – the world’s busiest border crossing – to eat, drink and party in the cheap nightclubs were magnetized by this zona of regional Mexican foods.
By the dawn of the 21st century American gastronomes were slowly opening their eyes to immigrants from Baja California who had begun selling birria in the flea markets, back alleys, sidewalks, swap meets and taquerias of southern California.
Meanwhile on the 1,248 mile border of Texas and Mexico where beef is undisputably king, Birria de Res was establishing a foothold in the towns and villages along the Rio Grande. While there is not a Sir Francis Drake-like figure a la Zárate there is still a rich history of birria in the nation’s number one producing beef cattle state.
The earliest Texas print media mention of birria is in 1963 in a San Antonio Express article on mariachi. Through the 70s the journalists of the day merely mentioned the dish as a sidenote in their travelogues.
West Texas, a mere 11 hour drive from the birria hub of Baja California is now a bit of a hotbed of the Jalisco staple.
Standing on Mt Franklin and looking down over El Paso and neighboring Juarez, the sea of flickering lights tell of taquerias hosting long queues of Texans patiently waiting for their birria tacos. The pioneer of the city La Cabanita opened in the mid-80s but has sadly since shuttered. The modern revival of birria has led to over a dozen Chuco (El Paso’s nickname) taquerias now featuring the dish.
West Texans claim that El Paso is the most criminally underrated Mexican food town in the entire US.
As you trek down the Rio Grande through the Trans-Pecos region, birria is now having its moment in the sun. The small desert towns of Alpine, Marfa, Fort Stockton and Terlingua collectively host over ten cafes that feature birria on the menu.
Continue along the birria trail as you traverse the state and you will find the absolute motherlode in the Rio Grande Valley. Harlingen alone has over twenty restaurants with birria on the menu. Nearby McAllen also has over twenty and Brownsville offers a dozen.
In fact, the brief (47 mile) Interstate-2 in South Texas could be considered a virtual Camino de Santiago of birria in the region. Mercedes, Alamo, Mission, San Benito, Raymondville, and La Feria; dusty little Texas villages one and all, now each have multiple restaurants, taco trucks and cafes selling birria.
The ne plus ultra of Texas’ birria scene is of course San Antonio. The city has been the queen of Texas Tex-Mex for well over a century and the savvy cooks and entrepreneurs that earn their living in the taco trade were early adapters to the birria trend. Even Taco Cabana, with thirty five locations in the city, just announced they are running birria quesadillas as a special through the end of January.
It took decades, but birria is now a movement. What started eons ago in Jalisco, Mexico can now be found in Austin, Texas (La Tunita 512); Budapest, Hungary (La Movida); Nashville (Chilangos) Hong Kong (Birria Y Birria); New Orleans (Secret Birria) and everywhere in between.
There are birria eggrolls, birria ramen bowls, birria pizza, birria pho, and possibly somewhere, birria on a stick. With this wildire of culinary popularity you now have innumerable shopping possibilities. For birria cooking novices there is a wide range of seasoning blends, powders, hot sauces, rubs, pastes, marinades and what have you.
If you arrived in Tijuana tomorrow morning you could visit El Poblano, Taqueria El Franc, El Rio, or El Paisano – all owned by émigrés from Coatzingo, Mexico. And there you would feast on a sea of tortillas, fried on the plancha in beef fat before being stuffed with simmered brisket, beef cheek or chuck and, depending on the taquero, mountains of molten cheese.
And you could thank Don Guadalupe Zárate or even the nameless goat herd from Colima who centuries before Zárate began plying his trade experienced that fateful volcanic eruption that would lead the US into a birria-based food frenzy that is showing no signs of abating any time soon.
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