If it’s salvation you want, there’s a couple ways to get it in this alley. There’s the church at the end. A real churchy-looking church, too—the sort of pretty, white-wood Godspot you’ve seen in ads for lemon-scented wood cleaner. And then there’s the salvation that’s lured us all to this parking lot outside a wildly unremarkable stucco building the color of old khaki pants, waiting for the birria man to call our names.
It’s Fernandez Restaurant, one of the most famous birria spots in Southern California.
Fernandez (the sign says Ed Fernandez, but everyone just knows it as Fernandez) was started in this parking lot by two brothers—Jorge and Miguel—in 2006 (they’d eventually bring on their third brother, chef Carlos). Short on employment at the time, they borrowed a friend’s food truck and parked it here, serving their mom-tested recipe for the famed Mexican meat stew (here's a short history of the dish).
Word got around fast. Pretty quickly they moved into the building, annexed next door, annexed upstairs, built a real nice back patio with Coca Cola decor (Coke schwag is to Mexican taco joints what Edison light bulbs are to gastropubs). Soon they will take over the building next door, and the church has offered to let customers use its parking lot (right now, they offer shuttle service to and from the parking lot at the nearby high school).
As far as birria goes, Fernandez is a small empire in an alley. A pickup-window helps satisfy some of the demand, but their demand may just be insatiable.
Gotta admit, I detect a little wariness in the dozens of people waiting outside as we walk up. At least 95 percent of the customers this morning, most of them regulars it seems, are Mexican. My wife Claire and I are acutely white, from the chalkiest Northern European stock. The needle scratches—not much, but just a touch. As a San Diego native, Mexican culture has always felt like my own, too, though I realize it’s not, and now’s not a particularly good time in U.S. history to expect a warm reception. But this morning is the first time—not even during the Prop 187 years—that I feel a little out of place in Mexican culture.
After all, Fernandez is a weekend sanctuary, and, well, here I come. I had plans to shoot short video segments, but I quickly dash those. I’m still writing about how good Fernandez is here in San Diego Magazine. But I couldn’t bring myself to interrupt the families’ breakfasts by yapping at a camera about why you all should come here and make their wait longer.
Maybe I’m projecting all this, saddling them with my own guilt. Maybe it’s just 9:30 a.m., they’re tired and hungry like I am, and a little bummed famous birria means waiting in line. Maybe they’re TikToking. I’m considering it’s possible a culture I love no longer feels terribly comfortable around me and how much that breaks my heart—when a bald ball of energy grabs my hand, shakes it with vigor, and says, "Hey! Good to see you!" Like we’re old friends, and I am the most welcome person ever to be welcomed.
This is Miguel. We’ve never met, and the only thing he knows about me is that I want to eat at his restaurant. Miguel is the host, the entertainer, the charmer, the man who makes families out of strangers. He knows customers by name, knows what babies and surgeries they’ve had. His brother Carlos runs the kitchen, and it cranks.
This had to be my first stop on the hunt for the city’s best birria. It’s the gold standard. It’s a very simple menu. They have birria, and birria-related tacos. They also have menudo on weekends until they run out (they’ve run out).
Miguel brings us what is possibly the single best taco I’ve had in my life—the Taco Queso Extremo, which is a house-fried tortilla, stained sunset red by that spicy, peppery birria consomme (broth), topped with melted cheese and moist, fall-apart birria beef that’s been crisped and browned on the griddle. Add hot sauce, chopped onions and cilantro, a dash of lime. The soft-crunch tortilla, the fatty, almost crisp melted cheese, the slow-stewed tender beef, dripping with the broth, the acid of hot sauce and lime, the red jus dripping down the side of your hand and arm—it’s over for you.
The birria consomme (served in a cup, it’s the meaty broth—the true quality test of a birria) is very good, deeply red and a tad spicy. It’s not the traditional goat or even the post-traditional lamb, so it doesn’t have that exotic funk I love. But the meat is tender and tastes like it’s spent the whole morning soaking up the intoxicant blend of cloves and cinnamon and garlic and cumin (it has).
Fernandez could expand, cater every quinceañera in Nestor and beyond. But Miguel tells us family time is important, especially after their parents passed a few years back. They’re only open from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. That’s enough for them, even if it’s not enough for the rest of us.
Fernandez Restaurant, 2265 Flower Ave., Nestor.