‘We can’t stop selling them’: How South Florida restaurants turned Instagram’s birria taco boom into a moneymaker

South Florida Sun Sentinel

Apr 13, 2022 7:00 AM

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From the moment he watched the quesabirria trend explode on social media, chef Julio Salazar knew he had to put Mexico’s white-hot tacos on his menu.

The owner of Bohemian Latin Grill in Fort Lauderdale watched newsfeed clips of the tantalizing tacos on repeat: Deep-fried orange corn tortillas, stuffed with shredded beef and chihuahua cheese – with blistered queso dripping down the sides – being dunked in slow-motion into a deep-red broth of rich complexity.

“I swear I could smell birria through the phone,” recalls Salazar, a Salvadoran who runs Bohemian’s flagship on Galt Ocean Mile with his brother, Jose. “I’m not Mexican but I told my brother, ‘Listen, this is trending, so let’s mess around with a recipe and put it on our menu.’ “

The Salazar brothers watched YouTube tutorials last August and experimented. They made their version of quesabirria a permanent menu item in March when their second Bohemian opened on Commercial Boulevard.

The Salazars weren’t the only ones. Chefs at local taquerias and pan-Latin eateries, mystified but encouraged by the Instagram and TikTok trend, added the savory handhelds to their menus to boost badly needed sales in the pandemic. Now quesabirria, for many, is their hottest-selling menu item.

“Between the crunch and the juices, it’s a delicious, greasy bite,” says Salazar, who goes through 240 pounds of short rib a week. “Being Salvadoran, we use corn for pupusas, and quesabirria is like a pupusa with cheese, only thinner. And yet, it’s crazy, it sells more than any other item. It boosted sales for us at a time when the pandemic was hurting.”

Quesabirria may be trendy now, but birria (pronounced “bee-ree-ya”) has been around since conquistadors landed in Mexico 500 years ago, says Karla Gutierrez, chef and co-owner of Casa Monarca Mexican Restaurant and Tequila Bar in Fort Lauderdale. Around Jalisco, Mexico, where she grew up and where it’s traditionally prepared, birria is goat or lamb stew massaged with spices and cooked slowly in a clay pot sitting at the bottom of a freshly dug pit. Cooks would cover the pot with cactus leaves, which dripped juices into the broth. Finally, the birria would be piled into soft, handmade flour tortillas, and served for breakfast – or family celebrations like quinceañeras and weddings, she says.

That was until 2019, when young Mexican-American entrepreneurs in Los Angeles and Tijuana turned birria into a cheesy, deep-fried experience. It was birria in quesadilla form – and they called it quesabirria, adds Francisco Rosa, chef-owner of La Cabana Latin Grill in West Palm Beach. They swapped flour tortillas for corn because it crisped better. They replaced lean goat with fattier beef, which was more palatable for American tastes. They deep-fried the tacos on the griddle until they achieved a hard crunch, added rivers of Mexican cheese and repurposed the au jus as a dipping sauce.

“The taco wasn’t just about the birria anymore. It was the combination,” Rosa says. “When I saw they were crunchy, and people on social media were explaining the adventure of dipping, the cheese dripping out, the birria juices when they dip it into the broth, it was a whole new experience.”

“This trend isn’t going anywhere,” he says. “We can’t stop selling them.”

Here are 10 restaurants in Broward and Palm Beach counties that recently added quesabirria to their menus.

Casa Monarca Mexican Restaurant & Tequila Bar

A cocktail bar, brass candelabras and trendy paintings of women in sugar-skull makeup distinguish this clubby Mexican restaurant and spirits hub, which opened in March. Monarca comes from co-owner Karla Guttierez, who uses flank steak, which braises for five hours. Gutierrez grew up outside Jalisco, the birthplace of birria, and uses a closely guarded family recipe for the broth that includes overripe tomatoes (“right on the edge of being not good,” she says), ancho and guajillo chilies, ginger, oregano and garlic salt. “It’s a twist on how they serve it in Mexican border towns, and made for American palates who aren’t used to goat or lamb,” says Gutierrez, who also runs a pair of restaurants in New Hampshire. Monarca’s version of quesabirria tacos ($15) are three soft corn tortillas filled with shredded steak, a cheddar-American cheese blend, red onions and cilantro. All tacos are dunked in red consommé before they’re fried to a crisp. Next, they’re plated with sides of Mexican rice and refried beans. In the dining room, the shredded beef had a chewier texture than most birria de res – likely because this cut of beef is less expensive – and its spicy consomme tasted savory, albeit more oily than rich. Off-menu tip: Monarca will also give the birria treatment to burritos on special request.

La Union Mexican Bakery and Restaurant

Inside La Union, a gigantic plywood cabinet near the entrance is stacked with every carbohydrate you can imagine: guava-stuffed empanadas, conchas (sweet bread rolls shaped like shells), slices of Niño Envuelto (a coconut-topped jelly roll), sugar cookies dyed the colors of the Mexican flag. Customers grab metal tongs and load up pastries on red cafeteria trays lined with wax paper. In short, this hidden gem of a panaderia feels like the last place that might hop aboard the birria bandwagon, and yet owner Alicia Nieto put them on her menu last fall, after hearing about Instagram’s latest taco craze. (You won’t find it advertised on La Union’s menu or website, though; those were updated last year before she added birria). La Union’s lone version of quesabirria ($12.99) comes with four fried corn tortillas on a white plastic tray, served with Mexican rice, red consommé and veggies. Unlike most South Florida taquerias that stuff birria tacos with cilantro, diced onion and lime by default, La Union leaves it on the side. But don’t ignore them: The light cilantro-onion crunch is a bright counterbalance to the rich, savory birria dipping sauce.

Quesabirria empanadas with red consomme at The Gringo in Delray Beach on Monday, April 11, 2022.

Quesabirria empanadas with red consomme at The Gringo in Delray Beach on Monday, April 11, 2022. (Carline Jean / South Florida Sun Sentinel)

This Argentinian-owned takeout eatery does empanadas in many trendy configurations – lobster mac ‘n’ cheese, Cubano, even dulce de leche – but owner Alan Brown had no idea that birria empanadas would account for 80 percent of his sales. Since he opened in March, Brown has sold 2,500 of them. The chef (formerly of Polo Club in Boca Raton, 3rd & 3rd in Delray Beach) says the riskiness of the pandemic ruined his idea for an empanada wholesale business, but his 700-square-foot storefront with a takeout window let him experiment. “You can make anything with empanadas,” he says. “And with birria, everyone makes their own style these days.” Brown uses ground chuck, which simmers in a pot of broth for six hours with four chilies, coriander and cumin. Next he stuffs it into baked empanadas with a blend of oaxaca, blanco and mozzarella cheeses, and serves it with consommé dip ($4.45 apiece, $10 for two and a drink, $49.99 for a dozen).

44 NE First St., Pompano Beach (food truck) and 6370 N. State Road 7, Unit #120, Coconut Creek (storefront); 954-729-9269, Papamigos.com

Lauren Grosso and Brian Faeth’s food truck, parked at Dixie Highway and Atlantic Boulevard since 2020, serves Mexican-Asian fare (what its owners have dubbed “Mexi-crasian”) led by a bold-flavored mashup: birria ramen. At Papamigos, birria is braised for six to eight hours in a rich consomme (cabbage, cilantro, dried chilies, onion, carrots, other spices), then piled into three handmade, deep-fried corn tortillas topped with melted mozzarella cheese ($16). Those tacos can be ordered solo, with a cup of spicy, deep-red birria consommé, or customers can add wavy ramen noodles, a savory flavor bomb in the broth ($20). Meanwhile, birria nachos ($18) are smothered in queso, sour cream, cilantro, chipotle mayo, pico de gallo and a generous pile of shredded Mexican cheese.

Quesabirria tacos with red consomme at Bohemian Latin Grill in Oakland Park on Monday, April 11, 2022.

Quesabirria tacos with red consomme at Bohemian Latin Grill in Oakland Park on Monday, April 11, 2022. (Carline Jean / South Florida Sun Sentinel)

1199 E. Commercial Blvd., Oakland Park, 954-530-8102; 3341 NE 32nd St., Fort Lauderdale, 954-809-5878. BohemianLatinGrillFll.com

In March, Salvadoran brothers Julio and Jose Salazar added quesabirria tacos to their two Bohemian Latin Grill restaurants. Although he’s witnessed traditional birria being cooked in Mexico before, Julio put it on Bohemian’s menu after seeing the flurry of birria food porn invading his Instagram feed. “I was like, ‘We should create something similar,’” the chef-owner recalls. “The only difference is we use short rib instead of lamb, because not a lot of Americans are used to lamb.” His tacos de birria ($15.99) begin with short rib braised for seven to eight hours, low and slow, in a rich adobo that includes ancho chilies, star anise, tomato paste and lager beer. Melted Oaxaca cheese and a dusting of cotija cheese, fresh onions and cilantro top the handhelds – the same as La Burrita ($17.99), a flour birria burrito stuffed with a double portion of short rib.

Pop-up at Broski Ciderworks in Pompano Beach, Yeasty Brews in Lauderhill, and Craft Beer Cellar and LauderAle in Fort Lauderdale; 754-213-1313, check Facebook.com/JennyWiththePot for weekly schedule

If you detect the aromatic sizzle of cheesy tacos outside the taproom, chances are it belongs to Jenny With the Pot, a birria stand that’s popped up at Broward and Miami-Dade breweries over the past year. Here you’ll find chef Venecia “Jenny” Africa, wearing her signature black bandana, flipping quesabirria tacos on the flattop until they’re dark red-orange – “the perfect color,” she says, as important as their crispiness. Her birria is a short-rib blend. As her corn tortillas fry on a puddle of red consommé, chihuahua cheese drips out, blistering against the outer shell like cheese on a well-done pizza. “It’s got to be extra crispy on the outside so it doesn’t fall apart as you hold it, while staying juicy on the inside,” Africa explains. Born in Pretoria, South Africa, she emigrated to South Florida six years ago after graduating from the city’s Chefs Training and Innovation Academy. When Africa and her partner, Keith Guzah, saw birria trending on social media last year, she watched YouTube videos and learned how to re-create the dish, and debuted her pop-up outside breweries that don’t serve food. Now she sells 1,200 tacos a week. A standard order ($10.99 and up) comes with two quesabirria tacos topped with onions and cilantro, and a clear condiment cup of red consommé dipping sauce (served mild or spicy). Birria ramen ($16.99) is also available.

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The long pandemic shutdown of Miami-area restaurants forced Frank Neri’s Mexican seafood restaurant PEZ to close in early 2020, but he pivoted with a hot taco trend: birria. His El Primo Red Tacos pop-up in Miami proved a hit with takeout crowds, where he sells more than 1,000 pounds of birria a week, and now he’s planning a storefront to open in Hallandale Beach’s trendy Atlantic Village in May or June. Neri’s quesabirria ($9 for two tacos) is braised for 16 hours in a brick-red soup of chili pepper, garlic, cumin and bay leaves. Birria is then piled into fried corn tortillas and served with a red consommé for dipping. “It takes two shifts of people working at the restaurant to prepare one batch over 15 hours,” Neri says. “The recipe was brought by one of our cooks from Tijuana, and we tweaked it a bit.” Until it opens, El Primo’s Miami flagship (20 W. Flagler St.) also serves birria ramen ($14) and huesitacos ($7 each), which include bone marrow, along with birria smash burgers as a special on Fridays.

The quesabirria tacos with a cup of red consomme from Davie Taco Bar on Friday April 8, 2022. Birria is slow-braised beef simmering in a pot of red chile, then shredded and tucked into fried. cheesy corn tortillas, and served with a dipping-sauce cup of red consomme.

The quesabirria tacos with a cup of red consomme from Davie Taco Bar on Friday April 8, 2022. Birria is slow-braised beef simmering in a pot of red chile, then shredded and tucked into fried. cheesy corn tortillas, and served with a dipping-sauce cup of red consomme. (Mike Stocker / South Florida Sun Sentinel)

This strip-mall taqueria in western Davie used to be called Agave Taco Bar until co-owner Juan Cedenco bought it three years ago and changed the name. His taqueria struggled for customers in the pandemic until quesabirria tacos blew up on social media. He knew birria as a common Mexican stew but he’d never seen “people taking the meat out of the soup and putting it in deep-fried tacos,” he says. After his quesabirria video went semi-viral on Instagram last November, customers streamed in. The taco bar’s short-rib birria is served with cheese ($11.99 for three) and without ($10.99), and made in a pressure cooker over two hours. “A cooker gives you the same tenderness but it’s way faster than letting it braise in a pot all day,” Cedenco says. “We have so many taco meats and fillings, so we have to optimize time.”

Multiple locations from Fort Lauderdale to Palm Beach Gardens; RoccosTacos.com

Chef Rich Garcia, the culinary director for Rocco’s Tacos, had been thinking about adding brisket tacos to the menu in late 2020 when one of his sous chefs shared a birria video from Instagram. So, with help from Big Time Restaurant Group chef Lisbet Summa (Elisabetta’s), Garcia experimented, marinating brisket overnight for at least 12 hours. Next, the brisket is pan-seared for smoky flavor, then added to an adobo of guajillo, morita and ancho chilies, roasted tomatoes and garlic, carrots and cinnamon cloves for nine hours. “I look at this dish as Mexico’s French dip sandwich,” Garcia says. “It’s worthless without the au jus. That’s why it’s so Instagrammable. It’s colorful and hits all those savory markers: cheesy, crunchy, greasy.” Because Rocco’s is a chain, and Garcia wanted to be mindful of dairy allergies, birria tacos come without cheese by default ($20.50 for three white corn tortillas topped with pickled red onions, crema and lime) and with for $1 extra. Rocco’s also serves birria ramen ($23).

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