Little known in Washington two years ago when you would have been hard-pressed to find it in local taquerias, let alone on a hotel brunch menu, birria became an instant celebrity during the pandemic as our phones and Instagram accounts served as lifelines to the outside world. Quesobirria tacos, birria quesadillas, birria ramen, birria shakshuka and other inventions that use the Mexican stew as their base have functioned as a motley troupe of magicians, hypnotizing us with a brick-red consommé that stains everything it touches and does something that many thought impossible:
Brings a kind of interactive, dunk-your-tacos-in-gravy cheer to the gray tedium of our pandemic lives.
Like sandwiches, which helped countless restaurants stay afloat during the pandemic, birria has been a life force during a time of great decay. It transformed one business into a small chain. It saved one family from financial despair, and it helped a taco truck move into a permanent brick-and-mortar location. Birria may have done something else, too: It may have found a permanent home on D.C. menus.
Just weeks after Little Miner Taco debuted in a Brentwood, Md., food hall, Mackenzie Kitburi took a trip to Los Angeles, where he made his usual stop at Birrieria Gonzalez, a truck that specializes in Tijuana-style birria tacos, these folded tortillas packed with long-simmered beef, the protein of choice among vendors in the Mexican border town. It was the fall of 2019, only months before life would take a turn for the worse.
“Every time I’m in L.A., I come here because I love it so much,” the Little Miner chef and co-founder tells me about Birrieria Gonzalez. “The reason I come here is because I can’t get [birria] at home. I’m like, ‘I have a taco place at home, why don’t I just do it?'”
And with that thought, Kitburi and his business partner, Kathy Voss, transformed Little Miner into a destination for birria de res, the beef stew that was created and nurtured in Tijuana for decades before it jumped the border and became a sensation in Southern California and, later, across the country. Kitburi figured he had a hit on his hands when he posted a video of birria tacos on Twitter in late November 2019. Twenty-four hours later, the video had been seen more than 80,000 times.
“Since then, it’s just been nonstop like this, all day, every day,” Kitburi says.
That’s not exactly accurate. Early on, the pandemic did put a hurt on Little Miner, like it did with every restaurant, big and small, but Kitburi made a wise move: He bought a pair of trucks, rebranded them as Little Miner and deployed the vehicles to the suburbs and other cities, which were hungry for something unique to take the edge off the pandemic.
The trucks went practically everywhere: Waldorf, Woodbridge, Manassas, Laurel, Frederick, even Baltimore. In those first, nervous days on the road, the trucks would generate long lines, which sometimes forced the cops to shut down the operation because, you know, social distancing. So Little Miner switched to preorders and scheduled pickups. The preorders would sell out in minutes, Kitburi says.
This business pivot generated more revenue, which in turn generated more business as Little Miner opened a second location in the Block food hall in the Pike and Rose development in North Bethesda. The owners have plans to open a third location in Baltimore’s Pigtown neighborhood next year. Pre-pandemic, Little Miner had 11 employees, Kitburi says. It now has 80.
Little Miner’s success is not a momentary starburst, a happy accident based on some curious collision of pandemic ennui, culinary fad and cultural obsession for foods that ooze, drip and radiate their charisma across our social channels. It’s based on a seriously delicious birria recipe, which has gone through several iterations, with input from Little Miner’s culinary team, including Maria Calles, Joel Sanchez, Victor Garcia, Ismael Montero, Jose Montero and Feliciano Jimenez.
The current recipe relies on primal cuts, butchered from whole steers sourced from regional farms. Calles is the one responsible for preparing the birria at Little Miner’s production facility in the former Union Kitchen space on Congress Street NE. She runs through 8,500 pounds of beef per week, including loin, brisket, chuck, flank and other cuts that get slow-cooked in large batches, along with some predictable additions (black pepper, cloves, guajillo chiles) and one wild card (juniper). Calles will skim much of the fat, leaving just enough to add depth and flavor.
The luscious, shredded beef from the birria stew serves as the foundation for a surprising number of housemade constructions: not just quesobirria tacos, birria quesadillas and birria burritos, but also birria cheesesteaks, birria loaded fries, birria munchwraps and even birria ramen (available only at the North Bethesda location). The birria stewing liquid, commonly called consommé, is also available as a side, so that you can enjoy its condensed, turbocharged gravy without any interference. Some of these creations are perhaps kitschier than others. The birria ramen strips away, for example, the silken pleasures of a tonkotsu broth and replaces it with a smash-mouth guisado infused with the heat of about a thousand chile peppers.
I’m not saying I don’t like the ramen. I just saying it’s as subtle as a tweet composed after a late-night bender. The birria works better, I’d say, with dishes that don’t necessarily demand such fussiness, like, well, just about everything else on the menu.
Little Miner Taco, inside the miXt Food Hall at 3809 Rhode Island Ave., Brentwood, Md.; inside the Block food hall at 967 Rose Ave., North Bethesda, Md.; and at 1110 Congress St. NE (for pickup only). littleminertaco.com.
Birria is not a monolithic dish, but one with many variations. Some use an achiote paste, with ground annatto seeds. Some rely on chile peppers only for color. Some add sweet spices, such as cinnamon or cloves. Some don’t. Some feature beef. Some favor goat, the star of the birria from Jalisco, widely considered the birthplace of the stew. Some use tomatoes. Some tomatillos. Some stew beef in a large pot of water infused with the spices and aromatics common to birria. Some steam adobo-marinated goat wrapped in maguey leaves in an oven. Some serve birria shortly after preparing it. Others “age” it for days.
The variations are seemingly endless. They have also evolved. The idea of dunking quesobirria tacos or quesadillas in a separate container of consommé is a more modern invention, an affectation made for our camera-ready lives. Old-timers will tell you that they have never heard such a thing back in Mexico.
Consider the birria at La Tingeria and El Papi Real Street Tacos.
David Andres Peña is the owner of La Tingeria, and for years, his truck has been a trusted source for tinga tacos and a deep-fried masa quesadilla stuffed with chihuahua cheese. Before the pandemic, Peña relied on the office workers of Ballston, Rosslyn and other Arlington neighborhoods to support his truck, but once the cubicle class migrated home for the duration of the pandemic, he had to revise his business plan: He whittled down his menu, switched to halal meats and started to vend on the weekends on South Courthouse Road, catering to the residents around Penrose Park.
He also added birria to the menu, including goat, the meat that originally inspired Jalisco cooks to design the pungent stew, essentially as a way to mask the gamy flavors of the mature animal flesh. To Peña’s way of thinking, if you’re serving birria, you have to include a goat version, almost as an homage to the architects of this stew revolution.
Once you take a bite of Peña’s goat taco, you quickly understand the symbiotic relationship between protein and consommé, each contributing to, and benefiting from, the other. The goat meat can break down inside the vortex of a birria stew and still not lose its essential character the way beef can (especially when a cook skims off too much beef fat from the pot). Goat and birria were literally made for one another, and Peña gets the most out of this sublime pair with his quesobirria tacos, in which he wraps the couple (along with chihuahua cheese, onions and cilantro) in a corn tortilla dipped in reserved beef fat and crisped up on a griddle. It may be the best quesobirria taco in the area.
Okay, now for the bad news: La Tingeria’s truck is closed for the winter. But that’s mostly because Peña is preparing to launch a bricks-and-mortar restaurant in Falls Church next month. It will, of course, include goat birria tacos, and so much more. “I don’t really want to be known as the birria guy, even though that’s what a lot of people come out to get,” says Peña.
Rudy Zamora-Herrera isn’t as bashful about his birria bona fides. His job title is painted on the wall at El Papi Real Street Tacos in Camp Springs, Md.: “great birria master.” Born in Hidalgo in central Mexico, Zamora-Herrera learned about birria firsthand, via his experiences living and working in cities throughout his native country, including Tijuana. His approach to the stew is singular and painstaking.
The chef and owner of El Papi ages his consommé for six days before serving it. Yes, he calls it aging, as if his birria were a porterhouse steak slowly losing moisture in a temperature- and humidity-controlled room. One afternoon, Zamora-Herrera walked me through the process for making his birria: It involves braising brisket for hours, removing the meat and using the beef stock as the base for the consommé, which is carefully developed with more than 20 spices, herbs and other ingredients, including ground annatto seeds, ginger and banana leaves fried briefly in brisket fat. By the way, Zamora-Herrera likes to leave most, if not all, the fat in the stew. No skimming in his kitchen.
Once the flavors in the birria have combined, Zamora-Herrera lets the consommé cool before he ferments it at room temperature for a couple of days, then transfers the stew to the refrigerator for further aging. The result is immediately visible to the eye: His consommé boasts a red-clay tint, far earthier than the crimson-colored birrias made just the day before. It’s thicker, too, like balsamic vinegar aged for 18 years.
When you dunk your quesobirria tacos in Zamora-Herrera’s consommé, you experience something more than the pleasures of salt, fat and heat. You experience the inexplicable alchemy of ingredients over time.
La Tingeria truck is closed for the season. La Tingeria restaurant is expected to open next month at 626 South Washington St., Falls Church, Va. El Papi Real Street Tacos, 5904 Allentown Way, Camp Springs, Md., 240-838-3830.
The early days of the pandemic were tough on the family of Salvador Perez and Norma Chavez-Perez. Salvador’s construction company had no work, and neither did Norma, who earned money as a housekeeper. Salvador and Norma’s son, David, was working for his dad’s company, so that was another missing paycheck. Most of the cash trickling into the household came from Sephora, the giant makeup chain that continued to pay daughter Brenda Arora even though she was not required to work.
For weeks, the family worried about how they would make ends meet, until one day when they decided to revive a part-time catering venture that Salvador had launched a few years back: They would jump-start Tacos Don Perez, but this time with birria to go along with Salvador’s beloved tacos al pastor. Arora came up with the idea for birria, after noticing how people had retreated to the privacy of their phones during the pandemic.
“I really think it was the pandemic” that caused the birria craze in Washington, Arora tells me, “because everyone was at home watching videos of, like, tacos being dipped into the consommé, and things would blow up overnight.”
Arora began developing her own Tijuana-style birria, built with brisket and beef shank, based on online recipes. Her father liked her first attempts, although he would eventually help her fine-tune it. He suggested adding achiote paste to the birria, along with bay leaves and cinnamon. He also thought they should make their own tortillas, which was a particularly inspired idea once the family decided to add achiote paste to the masa, which turns their tortillas an almost electric shade of orange when they’re finished on the griddle. The family sold tacos from their home in 2020 until they invested more than $70,000 to build their custom truck, which debuted in May.
Should the sun be shining on the day you visit the truck, tucked next to a Sunoco gas station, you might have an experience similar to mine: Everything — the quesobirria tacos, the birria quesadillas, the picnic tables, the jamaica agua fresca, the Tacos Don Perez logo affixed to the vehicle — seems to vibrate at a higher frequency, looking like a hyper-colored Pixar movie, one designed to make us unusually happy during a somber time.
Tacos Don Perez has made Salvador and Norma’s family happy, too. It generates enough money that Norma no longer has to clean houses. David no longer has to build houses. Arora no longer works at Sephora. Salvador no longer has to rely on his construction company to provide for the family (though he hasn’t surrendered the business either). Most of the family now works for Tacos Don Perez, which is expected to generate more than a $1 million this year, its first on the truck.
Arora is still pinching herself: “We just can’t believe how well it’s done.”
Tacos Don Perez, 12321 Georgia Avenue, Silver Spring, Md., 301-337-1216; tacosdonperez.com.