From an uncomfortably cramped south Austin food trailer, Gerardo “Jerry” Guerrero prepares hearty yet tender portions of meat drowned in brisket broth. Alongside five of his family members — including his mother-in-law and his own mother — the owner of La Tunita 512 crafts a glistening crimson jewel of a taco that tastes as good as it looks.
These crunchy vessels of chopped, guajillo chile-stained Texas beef are known as quesabirria de res tacos, or red tacos. Guerrero’s tacos are also served Costra-style, a novel Mexico City preparation method that upgrades a plain tortilla with a crisp, structurally sound round of griddled Monterey Jack. As the shredded cheese melts on the truck’s plancha, the taquero fishes out brisket chunks daubed in chile from a bubbling stockpot, vigorously chopping the protein. Folded together with diced onions and cilantro, this taco’s crunchy-on-the-outside-gooey-on-the-inside shell boasts a roastiness akin to a Cheez-It cracker, one that’s teased out further by the brisket’s fatty warmth. Finally, after a sharp squiggle of red salsa de arbol, the customer finishes the experience by dunking the taco head-first into a cup of lip-tingling consomme (beef broth).
Really, the quesabirria de res taco is an American take on a Tijuana breakfast tradition that gained steam during the early 2010s in Los Angeles, and has since dominated the nation. As is true of most matters regarding Texas tacos, birria de res isn’t just an Austin-centric craze; the trend has been creeping into cities like San Antonio and Dallas since at least 2018. And since Guerrero, a former Torchy’s Tacos dishwasher, opened his truck in late 2019, five new trucks dedicated to birria de res have popped up in the Austin area, and countless other local taquerias have shifted their menus to include the popular dish.
“Frankly, I’m surprised [birria de res] has taken this long to arrive in Austin,” says Gustavo Arellano, a Southern California food historian and Eater contributor who wrote the actual book on Mexican-American cuisine, Taco USA. While the Capital City’s ongoing red taco boom was inevitable, not even Arellano could have predicted that this nationwide trend would require a global pandemic, misplaced goat shanks, and fat-ass slabs of Texas brisket.
Long before area food fans descended upon La Tunita, Austin’s birria de res craze began with a cardinal sin: Guerrero forgot the goat meat. In November 2019, he was supposed to pick up the meat intended for his Saturday special, the birria de chivo. He had begun serving the wonderfully funky stewed goat (at the behest of a regular customer) less than a month into operating his truck; back then, Guerrero’s operation dealt almost exclusively in the cuisine of his Mexican home state, San Luis Potosí. The goat was a break from La Tunita’s usual fried pork gorditas and chili-infused enchiladas, one he’d hoped would prove lucrative. Determined not to meet the same fate as the Burleson Road gas station parking lot’s previous failed food-truck tenants, Guerrero acted quickly: He substituted the birria’s goat shanks with a five-pound hunk of brisket from wholesale chain Restaurant Depot that he had on hand for the day’s barbacoa.
Guerrero’s adobo seasoning — a masterful spicy blend of rehydrated guajillo and earthy ancho chiles that’s tempered by aromatic oregano and garlic — played well with the juicy beef. So well, in fact, that within a couple of weeks, lines to try this off-the-cuff creation stretched down the block. In no position to ignore this newfound success, the taquero soon made another pivot, this one more intentional. He retooled La Tunita’s menu into a birria de res operation, one modeled after Los Angeles’s most visible franchise, Teddy’s Red Tacos.
It’s been just over a year since Guerrero made that pivotal substitution. Obviously, he didn’t invent the outsized culinary sensation: He’s ready to admit he wasn’t the first to sell birria de res tacos in Austin — though his quick addition of brisket was admittedly a stroke of Lone Star brilliance. Nevertheless, La Tunita has evolved into the unofficial face of the local birria de res scene, and Guerrero’s birria tacos are considered the standard by which all of Austin’s reddish-orange, broth-drenched beef tacos are judged. Through it all, the taquero says he still prepares his birria with goat on occasion, but only when hosting a celebration with family and friends.
Across American media, birria de res — oftentimes simply referred to as birria — has become shorthand for any sort of taco that comes with a side of dipping broth, thanks largely to the ever-expanding influence of Los Angeles’s 2010s red taco scene. Such a mischaracterization, however, belittles centuries of tradition. “When I heard ‘birria,’ that meant birria de chivo [goat],” says Arellano, whose family hails from the Mexican state of Zacatecas, which neighbors Jalisco, the state known as the originator of goat birria. Traditionally, Jaliscan birria is made with goat (and, in some cases, lamb) shanks that aren’t so much stewed as wrapped in maguey leaves and slow-cooked in an underground stone-lined oven. The resulting carne can be eaten dry, with a side of consomme derived from the meat drippings.
By contrast, Guerrero compares the prep for birria de res (beef birria) to a crawfish boil: The fatty beef is simmered in a stockpot with an adobo marinade and water for roughly five hours, resulting in a succulent stewed meat and gallons of leftover beef stock ripe for the dipping. While this hearty protein dish is often referred to as “Tijuana-style birria” stateside, such a designation in actuality only applies when the guisado is served in taco form, as at the tourist-heavy border city’s marketplaces. In fact, a large contingent of Tijuana’s birria-serving taqueros, including the man who legend says first conceived of the beefy stew for sale in the city — Don Guadalupe Zárate — actually hail from Puebla, Mexico.
That brings up the subtle, yet important differences in how the birria de res taco is eaten in California and Baja California, Mexico. For one, south of the border, birria de res is served almost exclusively for breakfast, whereas in America it’s eaten mostly for lunch and dinner. And while the taco is finished with a splash of consomme for the sake of flavor, asking for that cup of dipping broth in Tijuana will earn you a confused stare. Finally, true Tijuana birria de res tacos are rarely, if ever, as brilliantly red as their American counterparts. Stateside, that characteristic vermillion hue is often achieved by double-dipping the tortilla in a mix of consomme and bright chile oil before griddling on the plancha. “When it comes to Mexican food in the United States, you always over-exaggerate it,” says Arellano. “Way bigger platters, way bigger portions.” The tortillas found in Tijuana do get orange from the beef fat soak, as he explains, but they never get “red-red.”
The American iteration of the Tijuana-style birria de res tacos emerged to Los Angeles in 2013. That’s when the widely copied prep method was first popularized by young Pueblan entrepreneurs like Omar Gonzalez and Teddy Vasquez, the founders of Birrieria Gonzalez and Teddy’s Red Tacos, respectively. As the latter’s story goes, Vasquez, who worked as an Uber driver, would leave secured, steaming pots of birria in the trunk, serving tacos to riders who’d inquire as to what smelled so damn good.
Fast-forward to 2020 and birria de res is now a sensation that’s spread across the country, from Los Angeles to Boston. By and large, Austin’s comparatively infant-stage red taco scene mirrors Los Angeles’s as far as menus are concerned: At any Austin operation, customers will find the birria taco front and center, usually with chopped, stewed beef topped with freshly diced onions and cilantro. Then there’s either a flour tortilla quesadilla or a mulita (birria de res and shredded cheese sandwiched between two consomme-soaked corn tortillas). Some, but not all, operations will offer a birria torta where the bread is brushed with broth. Lastly, that side cup of consomme for dipping usually costs extra, and can be ordered with additional chunks of stewed beef.
What really elevates each taquero’s birria creations are their unique adobos — the herb, spice, and chile marinades — that flavor the meat and stock. Austin’s consomme brewers will guard their specific adobo recipes as closely as treasured family heirlooms (half the time it’s a family recipe anyway). Many birrieros (taqueros specializing in birria) say they’d rather die than reveal exactly how those ingredients are combined. However, it’s usually an amalgamation of the same 12 to 15 well-documented ingredients, including paprika, oregano, cumin, cloves, onions, and both guajillo and ancho chiles.
Crucial to some stateside birria de res taquerias is also the quesabirria, as seen by Tunita’s menu, where the birria taco is amplified with the simple but powerful addition of melted cheese. Not all are served Costa-style as La Tunita’s, but any birriero worth their salt in consomme has no doubt fretted over the specific choice of cheese, taking care to select the variety that best compliments the adobo. Usually, these tacos are prepared with either mozzarella, Monterey Jack, or — in some rare but pleasant cases — American cheese.
Austin’s now-sprawling birria truck collection seems to have sprouted overnight, at least when compared to Los Angeles’s gradual climb. And as the city’s hospitality industry continues to weather a brutal year during the novel coronavirus pandemic, birria de res managed to find a valuable niche as a nearly perfect, socially distanced comfort food.
To be sure, birria de res tacos are best eaten directly off the griddle, yet they flourished during the pandemic as Austin consumers sheltered in place in the spring. That’s in no small part because they’re well suited to commuting. The piping-hot cup of consomme almost always stays warm thanks to its usual styrofoam container. And, more often than not, if an operation’s tortillas are griddled just right, the tacos will retain the drenched beef innards and gooey cheese long enough to transport back to one’s home and enjoy as intended, just like those found at all-around-solid birria de res trailer Pepe’s Tacos, which opened in Clarksville in September.
And now, more than a year after La Tunita morphed its menu, birrieros operate in every corner of the city. Setups as far south as Jamie’s BBQ & Mini Tacos and as far north as Taqueria Ceibas mean most residents of the Austin area can enjoy red tacos at home within 15 minutes of them leaving the grill.
Up north on Braker, for 14 years, Mario Aviles has earned a living serving bowls of his family’s sinus-clearing Michoacán goat birria soup at Taquito Aviles. In 2020, he introduced perhaps the city’s juiciest quesabirria de chivo taco to his menu — one that’s held together by the gooey ambrosia that is melted American cheese — a criminally underutilized ingredient among local birrieros. For the goat-averse, the taquero also offers a consomme-drenched “quesabirria” taco filled instead with succulent barbacoa (both iterations come with a cup of spicy consomme). Given how quickly Austin’s birria zeitgeist arrived, Avila has yet to update his truck’s sun-faded outdoor menu to reflect these new offerings. “When a customer has their face buried in their phone, trying to find a photo to show me what they want,” he says, ”I can tell they’re gonna order it.”
Credit where it’s due: Social media’s importance to birria de res’s current moment cannot be overstated. Jarod Neece, co-author of Austin Breakfast Taco and Tacos of Texas and co-host of television food program United Tacos of America [Disclosure: Trey Gutierrez is a field producer and writer for television food program United Tacos of America], first experienced birria de res tacos when filming in Los Angeles, but says his recent exploration of Austin’s offerings was entirely his 13-year-old daughter’s idea. “I’ll ask her, ‘How do you even know what birria de res is?’ She’ll say, ‘Instagram, Dad. Red tacos are all I’m seeing, and all I know is that I have to eat them.’”
“It’s funny that the dish was literally named for an ugly mess,” says Los Angeles food writer and Eater LA contributor Bill Esparza, noting that the concept’s original, spicy Jalisco adobos were aimed at making less desirable, funky goat meat more palatable. Now, though, it’s “absolutely beautiful, sexy, and appetizing,” especially for Instagram. And when the tacos “come out dripping with this beautiful red stock rich with adobo, the first thing you want to do is take that mid-dunk action shot,” he says, describing a familiar image shared across social media feeds.
Guerrero attributes also La Tunita’s early success to tagging as many food-related Instagram accounts as he could to spread the news of his brisket creation. Specifically, he points to a fateful visit from popular food influencer Taylor Hannan, better known by his instagram handle @austineater, as the beginning of La Tunita’s meteoric rise in late December 2019.
But it’s not just the dedicated birrieros who are doing it for the ’gram. Now, cocineros of all backgrounds are cashing in on the craze. A quick search of “birria tacos’’ on the social media app reveals a glut of red-taco postings from Austin restaurants that hadn’t advertised the item before last March. For example, chic, Michoacan-focused taqueria Gabriela’s Downtown, which opened on the east side in 2018, made no mention of the broth-drenched tacos early on. But now, the dish is a regular star of the restaurant’s Instagram page. Up north, Dizfruta ATX co-founder Jose Castilla, whose family-run operation specializes in traditionally over-the-top Mexican brunch beverages like micheladas, says California’s beef taco craze encouraged him to recreate and expand upon his family’s beef cheek birria recipe for the restaurant’s now-popular weekend special.
And who could blame them? Birria de res brings in business like nothing else. And business is booming. Rarely does La Tunita make it to its evening closing time before selling out, Guerrero says. That’s even while plowing through 10 briskets a day. He’d like to prepare more, but the kitchen’s single stockpot only fits five per batch.
Texas Monthly taco editor José R. Ralat says the rush to capitalize on this particular trend has resulted in many taquerias now serving barbacoa tacos — a fatty beef offering that, in this case, is steamed or prepped in a slow cooker — under the guise of stewed birria de res. Those taco cooks tell him, “in hushed tones: ‘It’s not actually birria, it’s barbacoa; be quiet, don’t tell anyone,’” says Ralat. Still, the editor believes consumers should know the difference between the two prep styles, and advises that barbacoa is, in most cases, evident by the lack of a reddish-orange color. “In pre-pandemic times, I would have questioned these operations more,” he says. But now, “we shouldn’t fault businesses for jumping on the bandwagon. I just wish they’d call it what it is.”
Not every taqueria serving barbacoa as a birria substitute does so in secret. Five miles south of La Tunita, in a dusty gravel lot on West Stassney Lane, sits patio-shaded food truck Sabor Tapatio. This is where Jalisco native Elin Gonzalez Garcia proudly serves something adjacent to birria de res: barbacoa de estilo Jalisco, a similarly stewed protein more than capable of scratching any red taco itch. Its flavor profile is a bit earthier than that of most birria de res tacos, but this fantastic nutmeg-spiced carne has nonetheless been the truck’s best-selling item since the trailer’s mid-2018 debut. Co-owner Juanita Soto says that their profits have doubled since last year, allowing the operation to hire additional employees and purchase another trailer.
Barbacoa or no, birria de res is one cultural craze that keeps on giving. In Austin alone, the trend is already proving incredibly malleable, leading to both exciting collaborations and new menu items throughout the city. There was the team-up between La Tunita and Arepa Dealers, newer rising stars of Austin’s Venezuelan street food scene led by husband-and-wife team Anissa del Rosario Schiek and José Tomás García. The result was a traditional cornmeal wrapped sandwich stuffed with melty pepper jack and stewed brisket, and, yes, the arepa was meant to be dipped in consomme. Up on Parmer Lane, Filipino comfort-food operation Carabao Express recently debuted a Southeast Asian twist on birria de res with its dunkable quesa taco stuffed with lechon kawali sisig — traditionally deep-sizzled pork belly. In early November, acclaimed East Austin butcher shop Salt & Time debuted a new casual delivery concept, Butcher’s Burger, featuring a braised lamb “birria burger,” complete with a broth-soaked bun. And around that time, established birria operations including Jamie’s BBQ and Hay Elotes saw a renewed wave of social media hype after introducing a Los Angeles food truck staple to their menus: birramen, which, as its name suggests, consists of beef and consomme served in a cup of Tapatío-brand instant noodles.
Surprisingly for a sensation that’s so highly regarded for its overt Mexican roots, such form-bending takes on birria de res are met with widespread acceptance. That’s no in small part, says Esparza, because Mexican Americans themselves are leading the experimentation. Even he admits he has a soft spot — or at the very least, a tolerance — for adaptations like birriamen, which he points out was actually first conceptualized by Mexico City chef Antonio de Liver for his burgeoning restaurant chain, Animo. “Personally, I’d prefer solid birria de res over birriamen,’’ he says, “but if you make a really great birria de res, whatever you put in it is going to be pretty damn good.”
And while cities like Los Angeles have a near decade-long lead on Austin’s birria scene, Texas adobo artisans like 29-year-old Alex Hernandez are innovating at a level that just might yield the red taco style’s next evolution. In early December, after almost three years of recipe development, the Oaxaca native debuted Buda’s first birria de res truck, Tejas Birria. The menu features the typical mouthwatering ruby-hued fare: quesa tacos, birriamen, and even a cravable birria melt (that’s birria de res, melty cheese, onions, and cilantro sandwiched between two golden-brown slices of Texas toast) inspired by the his 3-year-old son’s love of grilled cheeses.
But up the sleeve of this former Torchy’s Tacos store manager is another trick, one he hopes will make Tejas Birria a destination for quesataco-spoiled Austin foodies: birria kimbap. Drawing upon his time as the kitchen manager for San Antonio-area Korean restaurant Kogi Korean Grill, Hernandez has perfected his play on the seaweed rice roll that features tender beef birria and replaces sticky white rice with the spicy zing of Mexican rice (a distinctly Latin flavor that’s typically created by simmering rice with tomato sauce and cumin, and is best enjoyed hot). “The most difficult thing is perfecting the roll,” he says, explaining that the seaweed wrap’s umami flavor plays well with the beef’s savory taste. “Kimbap usually [is filled with] colder ingredients, so the key is making sure you’re letting the birria sit long enough that the seaweed doesn’t tear.”
And if Hernandez’s kimbap somehow doesn’t yield the next birria breakthrough, he’s also working on a broth-tinged pork belly burger as well as his own scratch-made birriamen noodles to replace the instant type he uses currently. Right now, for the new business owner whose red-taco-truck dream took flight after COVID-19 left him jobless, all that really matters is that local love for this red-hot Tijuana tradition continues into the new year and beyond.
Looking back, 2020’s beef-fueled birria de res craze is easily explained; it brought comfort food to Austin’s cultural forefront when it was needed the most. By that same token, it’s hard to see this taco’s popularity headed anywhere but up in 2021. In a city, and a nation, that’s forever obsessed with finding the next big culinary hit, for once, everyone can agree on something: Like a piping-hot cup of brisket-heavy consomme, birria de res’s current moment is one worth enjoying now — while it’s still hot.
Trey Gutierrez is an Austin-based food, art, and culture writer, and a producer for the El Rey Network program United Tacos of America.