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April 02, 2010

Birria Blitz

Birrieria & Taqueria Del Yaqui Dominic Armato

One of the things I've been told about the Mexican restaurant scene in Phoenix is that it's very homogenous. Though Baja and Chihuahua aren't far, Arizona's southern border is completely flanked by the Mexican state of Sonora, so it's no big surprise that the bulk of what you see driving around is Sonoran restaurants. That said, my hunch is that said homogeneity is overstated. I don't really have any reason to believe so. Call it a hunch. But it's a hunch that I'd like to put to the test, and what better way than taking a week to focus on one of the signature foods of Jalisco?

Going back a couple of weeks ago, a post popped up on the Phoenix Chowhound board... a fellow who was looking for birria. Tacos, specifically. Though most closely identified with Jalisco, birria is widespread enough that I was surprised only a couple of places were mentioned, neither of which were dedicated birrierias. Figuring there had to be more, I did the simplest thing I could think of to find some. I ran "birrieria" through a Google Maps search, and came up with four places that were named such. So I posted them, and was even more surprised that nobody, apparently, had tried them. Huh. Well, Yelp's not my style, but they're more widely used these days and the whole race to be first thing means their coverage is usually a little wider. Across all four spots, only one review. Clearly, I'd have to take matters into my own hands.

To quickly bring the uninitiated up to speed, birria is a dish most often made with goat, lamb or beef, where the meat is seasoned with a blend of roasted dried chiles and other spices, braised, steamed and/or sometimes roasted until fall-apart tender, and then served most typically in a bowl of the resultant broth, or dry in tacos. To be clear, I'm no birria expert. Not by a long shot. But I'm not unfamiliar with dish, and hey... the only way to learn is to get out there and eat as much of it as possible.

La BarquitaDominic Armato

First stop wasn't one of the mysterious four, but rather La Barquita, one of only a couple of places in Phoenix that turned up any birria buzz on the 'net. Though not a dedicated birrieria, the dish is sold as a house specialty and since it's gotten some press, I figured it'd be a good benchmark from which to start. Cute place. A little divey, but cozy, and the folks are friendly. There's a large menu to which I didn't really pay attention as I went straight for the main event. So as not to cover too broad a niche, I decided to stick to the goat at all five places, so that's what I ordered. La Barquita's birria is focused a little more heavily on the meat than the broth, arriving in a shallow dish rather than a soup bowl. I'm hot and cold on Barquita's birria. The meat I enjoyed an awful lot, with good flavor and a little body. No spent stew meat here. But the broth really threw me for a loop. It came across as too aggressively reduced and waaaay off-balance, with an unusually strong sour component that threw the entire dish out of whack. I didn't notice if they serve birria tacos, which I bet would be rather tasty. But this dish -- the $15 house special -- just wasn't enjoyable.

Birrieria & Taqueria Del YaquiDominic Armato

Next up was Birrieria & Taqueria Del Yaqui, named after a local Native American tribe that will no doubt be familiar to residents of Phoenix. Whether this meant that the folks running Del Yaqui hailed from Sonora -- also home to the Yaqui -- or were simply honoring a local, ancient tribe, I don't know. But the birria was a drastic departure from La Barquita. The best way I can think to describe Del Yaqui's birria is no-frills. It gets the soupy treatment, chunks of meat swimming in a big bowl of soup with a plate of onion, cilantro, cabbage and lime to add as you see fit. The meat wasn't nearly up to La Barquita's standard. This was clearly the leftovers from making the broth, not without charm but kind of anemic, almost devoid of fat and mostly bled of its flavor. It was obvious where the flavor went, however. The broth was deep, clean and very comforting. Almost too comforting. Bordering on boring, really. It was served with two accompanying salsas, one tomatillo and one tomato-based, but I didn't find either of them particularly well-suited to the broth. But I appreciated that they'd achieved a nice, round if overly mellow flavor, and on that basis alone I found it considerably more enjoyable than La Barquita's, not even taking into account that it was half the price.

Birrieria ObregónDominic Armato

The second mystery establishment was Birrieria Obregón, most likely run by Sonoran folks, since it's presumably named after the city in the south of the state. Obregón was a lively spot at lunchtime on a weekday, most of the tables filled in a semi-enclosed space that was delightfully airy on a warm-but-not-too-warm spring afternoon. I again went for the goat with soup, and got something wildly different than the previous two -- or any other birria I've had, for that matter. Birrieria Obregón is, apparently, all about the spicy. The meat's nondescript and lean like Del Yaqui, but completely shredded without the slightest hint of a chunk or fat or connective tissue or anything. The broth is rather oily, which I might ordinarily consider a downside, but here I think it works -- and may even be intentional -- as a means of carrying the heat from an enjoyable and potent blend of dried chiles. Sadly, it was the opposite of Del Yaqui's broth, all interest without a good, solid base. The folks at Obregón could take a lesson from Del Yaqui in developing some depth. But it was still a tasty bowl of soup despite its weaknesses, and it'll get you sweating after just a few spoonfuls. It could've been more, but I enjoyed it.

Birrieria El GordoDominic Armato

Birrieria El Gordo, erroneously listed in a number of places as Birrieria El Gorvo, isn't the most pleasant of restaurants. It's cave-like and a little dingy, lit by exposed CFL bulbs of competing color temperature. So of course it ended up being one of my favorites. This was a really delicious, nicely-rounded broth with a great, full flavor, and the meat was a great improvement over Del Yaqui and Obregón. Rather than the stringy, lean meat of those two, these were moist and tender chunks of goat. And though many will not consider this a positive, the fact that there was a good deal of silky fat and connective tissue made it even better. The broth was easy on the chiles and, to my palate, in need of a little more heat, but the red salsa -- mostly pureed chiles with a little vinegar, I believe -- was a great complement to the broth, unlike the salsa served at Del Yaqui. The vegetables at El Gordo are served from a bar up front, and distinguish it slightly from the others. As well as offering chopped radishes and cucumbers, both the cabbage and the onion and cilantro mix are finely shredded, cearly with a food processor, rather than minced and sliced by hand. While I prefer the texture and body that the latter provides, El Gordo's approach wasn't entirely without merit. It had the effect of almost acting like a thickener, making the dish feel less like a soup and more like a stew. But again, not to my preference. Even considering, however, El Gordo ended up being my favorite of the five.

Taqueria Y Birrieria JaliscoDominic Armato

Though not by a huge margin. My last stop on the Birria Blitz was Taqueria Y Birrieria Jalisco, named for the dish's home state. Jalisco is exclusively an open air establishment (though under roof or canopy), which made it breezy and comfortable, and the superfriendly staff only helped. Though I didn't feel Jalisco's birria was up to the level of El Gordo's, I suspect it has broader appeal. Their broth was also delicious, and felt like it had been rounded out with a little (or a little more) tomato, though I couldn't say for sure. It was undeniably a meat broth, but the vegetable flavor was a little more forward here. It needed a little more zip, but came with a fiery, pure chile puree that achieved that end quite nicely. The meat, to me, was the weakness. Definitely more enjoyable than Del Yaqui and Obregón, but without the life of La Barquita's or the succulence of El Gordo's. Even so, I found it very enjoyable. If I just couldn't handle lunch in a cave that day, I'd certainly be happy with a bowl of birria from Taqueria Y Birrieria Jalisco.

Chile PureeDominic Armato

So I guess the short answer is that there's a lot more birria out there than the widely-acknowledged La Barquita. And of course there's way, way more than this. These were just the most obvious and easy to find. Heck, while leaving Taqueria Y Birrieria Jalisco, I noticed another birrieria directly across the street, El Lorito, that was little more than a roach coach with a vinyl banner, canopy and a few folding tables. It was actually busier than Jalisco, which might be an indication that I should get back there sooner rather than later. But even barring future discoveries, I hit some places this week that I'll be all too happy to revisit. While I wasn't much enamored of either La Barquita or Del Yaqui, I can see myself returning to all of the others. El Gordo was definitely my favorite, but Jalisco wasn't far behind. And even though it had significant faults, the birria at Obregón was unique and interesting enough that I expect I'll be hitting it for a change of pace. Or maybe when I have a cold. It's got some fire, all right. Overall, an enjoyable and educational week, and here's hoping (and expecting) that more good birria spots will turn up.

La Barquita
2334 E. McDowell Road
Phoenix, AZ 85006
Birrieria & Taqueria Del Yaqui
2920 N. 43rd Avenue
Phoenix, AZ 85031
Birrieria Obregón
3146 W. Van Buren Street
Phoenix, AZ 85009
Birrieria El Gordo
2650 W. Glenrosa Avenue
Phoenix, AZ 85017
Taqueria Y Birrieria Jalisco
615 W. Broadway Road
Phoenix, AZ 85041


You know, I originally came to this blog because I heard this rumor that you had the best Top Chef discussions on the web (which rumor I now consider to be no more than the truth). But I stick around even when TC's off the air for posts like this.

I'd love to see you do a vaca frita tour of Miami, but for now this will do. *cheer*

Oh do I ever love birria - at least the goat version. The two best I've had outside of Mexico are at a restaurant in a city where I live now and a restaurant in a city I used to live in. The used to is Half Moon Bay, California. I don't remember the name of the restaurant but it is right off Main St. and looks like a small house. As you park your car you will see a field with many a goat grazing - future birria. They cook the meat for a minimum of 24 hours and the stew liquor is intoxicating and the meat has just the right touch of gaminess to match the aggressive seasonings. Second restaurant is where I live now - Palm Springs, California. It is called El Taco Asada - located on the corner of El Cielo and Ramon. The Birria is awesome. Also, try the Lengua En Salsa Verde and the Cabeza taco or burrito. This restaurant is about as close to authentic Mexico street stall food that you are going to find in the US. Formica tables and fluorescent lights so no atmosphere but who can take their attention off the food? A great birria will satisfy you for days.

I had no idea birria was made with anything other than goat. Goat is gaining in popularity so much that there is literally a "goat rush" on in the DFW metro area. lol. Prices skyrocketing.

Any plans to put up a TCM page? We need a place to vent about the format, and of course the ridiculous first week air time.

Wow, didn't even realize Masters starts tonight. Yippeee! (but 11 pm? yuck)

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