The color, the crispness, the meat and the mess — there’s so much to love about birria, the Mexican dish that’s now ubiquitous on TikTok and Instagram. What started trending with Los Angeles’ Latinx community now has people coast to coast, from all walks of life, clamoring for a bite of birria.
Birria has garnered lines around the block, hundreds of millions of views on social media, and has been added to many higher-end Mexican restaurant menus. Taco stands that were previously serving barbacoa added birria to the menu and saw profits rise. A food truck in LA’s Westside that served cemitas, a type of Mexican sandwich, pivoted to birria last year due to demand and saw a 50% increase in sales.
What is birria?
At its most basic, birria is a meat stew bathed in a melange of chiles and spices, giving it a deep, red hue. Birria tacos feature tortillas filled with the stew’s tender, juicy meat. The tortillas are dipped in the thin layer of fat that floats to the top of the birria, then filled with meat and thrown on the griddle, giving them their Instagram-worthy look and addictively crispy exterior. Birria tacos are served with the consommé, or broth from the stew, on the side, topped with onions and cilantro. The tacos are dipped in the consommé, making for a multisensory gastronomic experience that people can’t seem to get enough of.
“I think that the hype is about the interaction with the dish,” Cloud Ramos, who, along with her sister, Stephanie, posts Mexican cooking videos on their YouTube channel "Views on the Road," told TODAY Food. “When you go out to eat, you can see your taquero dipping your tortilla in the broth. Your tacos are completely transformed when that fat touches that tortilla; it creates that barrier for you to be able to dip that taco so it doesn’t get soggy.” She added, “It’s like our version of grilled cheese and tomato soup.”
The Indigenous Mexican American sisters, who are based in Texas, said they started seeing requests pour in for birria taco recipes a couple of years ago. Now, they have a whole portfolio of birria recipes, with their top birria de res recipe garnering 2.5 million views. They additionally have videos for Instant Pot birria, fish birria and even a vegan birria made with hibiscus flowers. They had eaten birria growing up at home or on trips to Mexico, but its long cooking time made it something that was saved for special occasions.
Birria de Res by Stephanie Ramos and Cloud Ramos
Where does birria come from?
While many in the U.S. are only recently learning about birria thanks to enterprising taqueros who harnessed the power of social media over the past five years, birria’s origins can be traced back centuries to Jalisco, Mexico. There, the flavorful stew was traditionally made with goat meat and cooked in a clay pot or in the ground for hours with a variety of chiles and spices like oregano, thyme, cloves, making the meat super tender and mellowing out the gameyness. The dish spread to other regions, and each region — and even each family — has their own mix of chiles, spices and aromatics that they use.
Birria tacos, however, seem to have originated in Tijuana, Mexico, notes Los Angeles food writer Bill Esperanza, who recalls seeing birria taco stands popping up there in the early 2000s. Many of these stands swapped the goat for beef, a more affordable and widely enjoyed meat, which helped drive the popularity of the dish outside of the Mexican community. These stands served birria de res with the consommé on the side, most often for breakfast or early lunch.
But the act of dipping the taco in the consommé that has completely taken over TikTok and Instagram feeds? That originated somewhere along the birria taco’s route to Los Angeles.
How did birria take off in the US?
Teddy Vasquez is among those credited with catalyzing "The Great Birria Boom," as Esparza called it in his Eater article, in the U.S. Down on his luck, broke and broken up with, Vasquez was persuaded in 2015 by a friend to learn the art of birria.
“I wasn't looking to cook. I wasn't looking to open a business,” Vasquez told TODAY. “I was just looking for a way out.”
He’d never actually eaten birria, but went down to Tijuana and got schooled on birria for a year before returning to Los Angeles. He made birria for friends and neighbors, many of whom had never had it — and he was floored by their reaction.
“Everybody was like, ‘Wow, Teddy, this food is amazing. What is it? What are these red tacos?’ They couldn’t even pronounce birria. And everybody was like, ‘Hey Teddy, you need to start selling your tacos,’” he recalled.
He managed to get a car and started driving for Uber and Lyft, saving up enough money to open Teddy’s Red Tacos, a weekend taco stand. To promote his birria, he carted around his tacos in the trunk. When riders would ask about the enticing smell, Vasquez would offer them a free sample, directing them to follow him on social media and visit the taco stand. He did this for nine months, driving, working the taco stand and pawning off his possessions, eventually raising enough money to open a food truck. He started posting videos on Instagram, showing birria tacos being dipped in consommé. The videos were a hit, turning birria into a bonafide trend.
Soon, other taqueros in Los Angeles and across the country took notice and started adding birria tacos to their menus. Others took it to the next level and added cheese, creating a gooey layer on top, that spills out onto the griddle and adds a crust to the taco. Quesabirria tacos became the new object of desire.
A year later, Vasquez was catering for parties at the home of Chrissy Teigen and John Legend, who were fans of his truck, and a year after that, he starred in a Super Bowl ad on ESPN Deportes.
When asked about his role in making birria tacos a trend in the U.S., Vasquez joked, “I came out on ESPN saying, ‘You can do it, whatever your dreams, go ahead and do it.’ But people took it the wrong way. They started following my dreams. I said do your thing. Not my thing,” he laughed. “I'm not mad. I'm happy because I created something.”
The proliferation of taco shops serving birria hasn’t hurt Vasquez, who has plans to expand to six locations around Los Angeles.
The future of birria in the US
The wild popularity of birria tacos has ushered in fusion dishes like birria wontons, birria grilled cheese, birria egg rolls and birria ramen, which have all trended on social media and ended up on IRL menus. While Vasquez said he’ll continue to stay true to the dish that helped him achieve the American dream, the Ramos sisters said they are excited to see the ways in which people are putting their own twist on birria. They aren’t worried about the Mexican roots of birria being lost in the mix.
“They’ve tried to colonize the cuisine and it backfires, because you're always going to have those mom-and-pop places, whether it's in the States or in Mexico, that are traditionalist that refuse to change, using the same pot their papa used and that his granddaddy used,” said Stephanie.
If you’re new to birria, the Ramos sisters have one suggestion: Dress appropriately.
“It's like the little baby eating spaghetti. You don't know what happened to you, but it was worth it,” said Stephanie, referencing the mess one is likely to make when in the throes of birria passion.
“Unless you're trying to flex,” Cloud interjected. “Once you become a professional birria-and-consommé eater, show up with your all whites. People will be shocked that you walk out without a stain.”