The Hunt for San Diego's Best Birria
Food critic Troy Johnson starts his spiritual quest for the iconic Mexican dish
The goats ate their food, so they ate the goats. In doing so, they created one of Mexico’s most iconic dishes.
At least that’s one of the creation stories historians give for the spicy, meaty, soul-whispering stew known as birria. Creation stories of dishes can be dicey, but, birria’s star was definitely born in warring skies. When the Spaniards conquered Mexico in the 1500s, they brought over a few key ingredients. The first were exotic spices like cinnamon and cloves. The second were food animals like cattle, pigs, sheep, and goats.
Well, goats are the master survivalists of the animal kingdom. They can survive on barren, rocky terrain. They thrive in nasty weather that would cause cows to sigh and tap out of natural selection. They’re also pretty good at sex, reproducing at a brisk clip. So pretty soon, those Spanish goats were everywhere in Jalisco, Mexico, eating all the crops of natives, tearing up their seedbeds. Goats were like the second wave of Spanish attack. An adorable, terrible, furry army.
According to historians, it got so bad that goats actually caused starvation in parts of Mexico. What do you do when an animal eats all your family's food and starves your kids? You marinate that animal overnight, and slow-bake it underground (a Mexican cooking method known as barbacoa).
Another creation story claims the Spanish conquistadors had delicate palates and didn’t like goat meat because it’s tough. So they gave it to Mexican natives and said good luck with that. As anyone who’s cooked a stew or barbecue knows, tough cuts of meat are magically transformed by slow cooking it at a low temperature. The protein becomes sublimely tendermoist, connective tissue and collagen dissolve to give a beautiful, round umami. Mexicans knew this. They made a chile paste (guajillo chiles, ancho chiles, cascabells, etc.), rubbed the goat meat with herbs and spices (cloves, cinnamon, cumin, oregano, thyme, etc.), placed it all in simmering water with onions and garlic, and waited for the oppressor-goats to become delicious birria.
With all this salvational backstory, it’s no wonder, then, that the dish is so revered in Mexican culture. It’s claimed to be a cure for everything from hangovers to the common cold to prolonged ummarriedness. Plus, it was created in Jalisco, which is the only place in the world where true tequila can legally be made. Plenty of hangovers that need curing in Jalisco.
Birria has kept a pretty low profile in the U.S. until recently. Most Mexican restaurants didn’t serve it—probably because birria has always been a special occasion dish, served at quinceañeras and weddings and big holidays like when the Spaniards were driven back into the sea.
But the 400-ish year-old dish has been showing up in national headlines (“Oh My God What Is This New Mexican Stew?!”), for good reason. To this generation obsessed with bone broth and the facelift potential of collagen, birria may as well be a superfood—especially on a cold day when you just want to eat a spicy bowl of delicious steam. Stateside, you’re more likely to see birria made with lamb, beef, or pork. People in the U.S. aren’t big on goat eating.
I made birria for my own family on New Year’s Eve (beef). It was very good, was not met with the polite smile of the secretly disgusted. But my birria is tee ball in San Diego. Mexican chefs high and low have been perfecting their recipes every day for years or even decades now.
So today I announce my spiritual quest for the best in the city. Please send me your recommendations for the best birria you’ve tasted. I’ve done extensive research and made a list, but I am only one man and will take guidance of every sort. Thank you.
For results of my previous quests for the best food and drink in San Diego, see below: