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The Best Birria in San Diego

The results of food critic Troy Johnson’s month-long quest for the Mexican specialty

It was inevitable. One of Mexican cuisine’s greatest hits has finally started to sweep the U.S. Ladle it on a crispy quesadilla. Nuzzle it into a taco. Or just serve it steaming in its own stark beauty in a cup. Birria has that stew magic—hours and hours worth of concentrated flavor packed into a tiny bit of succulent meat, swimming in a god broth. It is to Mexico what coq au vin is to France or panang curry to Thailand.

It was invented 500 years ago. So what took it so long to migrate to the U.S.?

Because birria is special. It wasn’t meant to be everyday food. It takes about eight hours and patience to make, simmering until the flavors meld and sing. So it was primarily reserved for quinceañeras or when good people got married.

But now the Instagram age has us on a global hunt for new foods. No kitchen is too small, no dish too obscure. If your grandmother once puffed a little mary jane and created a dehydrated ice cream donut pretzel for her square dancing club, an influencer will find the recipe and she’ll have her own show on Vice soon.

Here’s birria’s quick and fascinating story: When the Spaniards invaded Mexico in the 1500s, they brought two crucial ingredients: new spices like cloves and cinnamon, and food animals like goats, pigs, and cattle. Well, goats became a big problem. They’re master survivalists, able to thrive in the bleakest terrains and make dinner out of the most burly weeds. They’re also pretty good at sex, so they grew into a significant, unruly herd fairly quick.

Goats overran villages, eating the locals’ crops and seed beds. Fences hadn’t yet been invented yet, so what do you do when a wild animal is eating your family’s food supply? You put that animal in some boiling water, simmer it for hours in herbs and spices, and create birria.

That’s why traditional birria is goat (chivo). The U.S. market doesn’t eat much goat, so the current birria joints largely focus on birria de res (beef). And I spent the last month hunting down the best birria spots in San Diego County.

A Brief explainer of my process: I start by making my own list from what I’ve eaten in the past. Then I ask food friends, chefs, San Diego Magazine readers, and social media contacts for their recommendations. Then I cross-research. I narrow it down to 10-15 places renown for the dish, and zig-zag the city to try every single one. For birria, I hit 14 houses: Ed Fernandez, Tuetano Taqueria, Don Rafa, TJ Birrieria, Cocina de Barrio, Super Cocina, Carnitas Las Michoacanas, Tacos El Poblano, Tomatito, Birrieria y Menuderia Guadalajara, El Tio Pepe, Birriria Nego Durazo, Mariscos y Birria El Prieto, and Taqueria Revolución.

The best part of doing these “best of” lists is not naming winners. Food should be a celebration, not a competition. But people love lists, and if I’m being honest with myself, I always keep a ranking in my head. So this is me sharing that. The meaning in this work comes from meeting the cooks and families behind the restaurants.

This list is not ordained by any governing birria body, nor by god. I’m just a human who studies food for a living and set out on a month-long obsession. I don’t presume it to be the end-all, nor the be-all. And I genuinely look forward to hearing your favorites, which ones I missed, or how wrong my rankings are.

Two more notes. First, I based this list on the consomme (birria in its purest form, served in a bowl or cup), because anything tastes better when put atop a crispy quesadilla, and that obfuscates the quality of the birria itself. And lastly, the top three here—El Prieto, Tuetano, and Fernandez—are interchangable. For me, that’s the holy trinity of San Diego birria.

The Best Birria in San Diego Mariscos Prieto

The Best Birria in San Diego Mariscos Prieto

1. Mariscos y Birria El Prieto

Down in Otay Mesa, sharing a parking lot with a giant muffler shop, rest two Mexican food trucks—one serving seafood (mariscos), one serving a litany of birria creations. A tarp is hung between their roofs, which shade their standing-only hightop tables. Near dinner hour, the crowd fills in early, probably because good birria is like good barbecue—made daily, and served until it’s gone. Their birria de res (beef) is both plentiful and intoxicating, loaded with meat so tender and juicy it’s nearly become part of the stew. The flavors scream—the most intense and delicious adobo seasoning (chiles, garlic, cumin, oregano, etc.) I find all month. Worth a trip to stand in a parking lot with car parts.

3031 Main St., Chula Vista

Destination: Tuetano Taqueria

Destination: Tuetano Taqueria

2. Tuetano Taqueria

Tuetano’s was my personal favorite right up to the last day when El Prieto knocked my socks off. Chef-owner Priscilla Curiel’s small menu at her lovely, small taco shop has garnered well-deserved acclaim in San Diego, and nationally in Food & Wine. Her bone marrow taco is a natural-born legend. Curiel has a chef’s approach (her family has owned restaurants in Tijuana for decades. She graduated from culinary school), and at Tuetano found her own high-quality “dried chile man.” Many shops use plain old commercial chiles from wholesalers, which can be months if not a year old. And you can taste the difference in her broth, which is almost translucent and delicious. She uses bone marrow to add succulent, succulent, soul-stoking fat to her consomme. In the age of bone broths, this outdoes them all.

143 W San Ysidro Blvd., San Ysidro

Destination: Fernandez Restaurant

Destination: Fernandez Restaurant

3. Ed Fernandez

You say “Fernandez birria” in these streets and people smile and roll their heads back, overcome by last weekend’s meal. And this weekend’s to come. Because every weekend, freezing cold or not, locals in Nestor line up outside Ed Fernandez’ stucco building in the alley. Put your name down, and sit in what appear to be church pews out front. The three brothers who run it are usually there talking to customers like family members, and one of their daughters cooks and helps run things. Chef Carlos cooked in big hotels in Vegas and San Diego, and brings a chef’s edge. But it’s grandma’s birria recipe and it’s divine. Their queso birria taco—a tortilla sauteed in the birria jus, then covered with melted cheese, birria, cilantro, and onions and hot sauce—is one of the best tacos I’ve ever eaten.

2265 Flower Ave., Nestor 

The Best Birria in San Diego Guadalajara

The Best Birria in San Diego Guadalajara

4. Birrieria y Menuderia Guadalajara

Goat (chivo) is how birria was traditionally done, and this Chula Vista icon is how it’s done right. The broth on the chivo is dark crimson red, just a hot lava of chiles, loaded with bones and meat. Bones are flavor, so just pick them out, pile them up, and thank them. I wish every birria joint served goat or lamb birria, because the game meats have more personality, can stand up to the bold flavors of birria spices. Their birria de res is also nice, but for me this was the best chivo in the county.

396 Broadway, Chula Vista

The Best Birria in San Diego Michoacanas

The Best Birria in San Diego Michoacanas

5. Carnitas Las Michoacanas

I’m not saying people who appreciate the taste of lamb are superior people of taste and refinement, but that’s exactly what I’m saying. I’m trying to eat less meat these days, per the advice of research and science. But my love for lamb makes it hard. People often consider the word “gamey” as a negative term. But give me funk and flavor every day. And the birria at this little taco shop in a Rolando strip mall is an altar and offering to those who love lamb. Huge, meaty chunks of it suffuse their consomme. It is the lambiest lamb dish. The broth is thin, so I thought it would be a little watery, but it explodes. They served me a free carnitas taco with my order, which seemed criminally generous.

6513 University Ave., Rolando

The Best Birria in San Diego Don Rafa

Birrieria Don Rafa

6. Birrieria Don Rafa

I’m staring at a quesadilla, thick and cheesy and pan-fried brown and glistening, swimming in the middle of a birria consomme. It is a quesadilla ahogada (the name for Mexican dishes, usually sandwiches, plated in a small pool of jus), and it is the very best kind of gluttony. Eat this if pleasure is still a goal in your life. Birrieria Don Rafa has a luxurious, sprawling dining room by birrieria standards. They started small, won over huge fans, and moved to this larger location with neon in the windows and birria on every table. Order the Birria en su Jugo—a plate of birria that’s broiled and browned, the stew reducing and concentrating to flavor the meat.

560 Broadway, Chula Vista

The Best Birria in San Diego Super Cocina

The Best Birria in San Diego Super Cocina

7. Super Cocina

Super Cocina earns its name, has for years. One of my favorite Mexican restaurants in San Diego. The City Heights shop is a miniature buffet of stews and specialties—cooked in front of you by seemingly all-female chefs in their open kitchen. Their birria is goat, of course Super Cocina eschews trend for tradition in almost all instances. Their consomme is the most luxurious of all on our hunt—thick, creamy, and buttery. Almost like a tomato soup. The only qualm is that its butteriness and beautiful fat content is the main draw, and the spices and flavorings aren’t as magical as other places in town.

3627 University Ave., City Heights

The Best Birria in San Diego Barrio 2

The Best Birria in San Diego Barrio 2

8. Cocina de Barrio

This new Oaxacan-food restaurant in Hillcrest is definitely worth a visit. A not-hidden-at-all gem of a patio, with cherry blossoms and shade. It’s higher-end Mexican food, for the times when standing in a parking lot with a cup full of soup may not impress your date. Their birria de res is very good, a generous tuft of meat served in the center of a large, shallow pool of consomme. It’s topped with edible flowers. Fresh leaves are pressed into their housemade tortillas (“to add a little flavor and to aid in digestion,” explains my server). If you want good birria, and a stylish night out, this is your place. The partner and chef cut his teeth and well-respected restaurants, Civico 1845 and Solare.

3707 Fifth Ave., Hillcrest

9. TJ Birriria

TJ Birrieria has some of the best hot sauce in the city. I know this because when I first tasted their birria consomme, I kind of shrugged. It’s a little bland. But if you put that consomme into a tortilla with cilantro and onions—and then you add that hot sauce—you have quite a delicious meal. If I were TJ, I might skip the middleman and just add the hot sauce directly to the birria before serving, like one might add hoisin to pho.

1794 Newton Ave., Barrio Logan

10. Tacos El Poblano

Another strip mall location, sharing a parking lot with a WalMart and other mastodons of commerce. One thing I learned in this hunt is that Chula Vista has drastically better mall food than most parts of San Diego. And Tacos El Poblano’s birria de res is an example—mostly because of the broth, which is drinkably good. The meat is the drawback here. The magic of birria comes from the tenderness of that slow-cooked protein, and El Poblano’s is in little chunks that haven’t are almost tough.

885 E H St., Chula Vista

By Troy Johnson

Troy Johnson is the magazine’s award-winning food writer and humorist, and a long-standing expert on Food Network. His work has been featured on NatGeo, Travel Channel, NPR, and in Food Matters, a textbook of the best American food writing.

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