Birria Forever! And Ever...and Ever...
There may be more than birria and weekend menudo here, but it would be hard to tell by looking at the plates on the tables around you, at the signboards above the steam table or at the menu (which doesn't exist). And where some restaurants serve birria in plates so brimming with soup you wonder how the waiter makes it from the kitchen without spilling, and other places roast the meat to a frizzly crunchiness or season the stew with strong doses of mint, this is decidedly plain-wrap birria, good and strong, tasting mostly of goat, the meat itself stewy and soft as a long-cooked lamb shank, generous in bones and cartilage and secret bits of flesh. 3104 S. Maple Ave.; (213) 231-1682. Open Mon.-Fri. 8 a.m.-6 p.m., Sat.-Sun. 6 a.m.-6 p.m. Lunch for two, food only, $7-$9. Beer and wine. Cash only.
Birrieria Jalisco, a dark, cavernous goat restaurant on the fringe of Boyle Heights, is decorated with goat portraits, a mounted goat head, and many souvenirs of the goat lover's favorite futbol team, the Guadalajara Chivas. Accordion ballads roar from the jukebox. And the birria is good, garlicky, zapped with hot spices, chewy, fatty and filled with little bones. There are warm tortillas and hot salsa and chopped onions and cilantro to make tacos with, and limes to squeeze - Mexican health food, very salubrious. Glasses of creamy horchata, which tastes like liquid rice pudding, soothe the chiles' burn. The thin film of broth on the plate, thick as pan drippings, is salty and goat-pungent. 1845 E. First St., East L.A.; (323) 262-4552. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Goat for two, food only, about $11. No alcohol. Cash only.
I discovered Birrieria Tepechi in Wilmington by accident, when dialing 411 for the address of another goat-o-rama. I was prepared to turn around and leave when I found a modern, brightly lit place with clean tables, a full menu and overstuffed booths - goat cafes tend to be as funky as the product they sell - but decided to stay when I saw a heaping bowl of goat go by. The birria here seemed sort of an upscale version, bone-free and not too strong, a little dry, dressed with a bigger helping than usual of dark toasted-chile sauce. At Tepechi, you can also get birria served dry on a plate, with the soup in a little bowl on the side, so control freaks can precisely calibrate each bite's proportion of goat, raw onion and broth. 1258 N. Avalon Blvd., Wilmington; (310) 513-8084. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Goat for two, food only, about $11. Beer. Lot parking. MC, V.
Birria (which, in case you hadn't caught on, is the subject of this week's column) may be the most primal dish of Mexican cuisine. Imagine (if you don't mind) a big plate of roast kid crudely chopped into wallet-size chunks: the snips of cartilage, the crunchy burned rib ends, the sweet little wisps of flesh that attach themselves to membrane or hide between slivers of bone, the muscly, fist-size knots of pure meat. Now imagine a tall room, with goats' heads and stags' heads high on the walls, a norteno-stocked jukebox in the middle, and on each table a squeeze bottle of sauce that seems hot enough to set off a fusion reaction in your silver fillings. This is Chalio, a place offering creditable bowls of menudo and the hominy stew pozole, saucy enchiladas and giant tacos made with what seems like a quarter-pound of grilled beef, but where birria - here flavored with a strong hit of a mintlike herb - is the main event. 3580 E. First St., East L.A.; (323) 268-5349. Open daily 7 a.m.-9 p.m. Lunch for two, food only, about $12. Beer. Takeout. Lot parking. AE, MC, V.
At Coley's, goat is hotly spiced, luscious, with the tender sweetness of really good lamb. Jerk chicken is redolent of pepper and allspice. Braised oxtails are spectacular: subtly gelatinous, deeply flavored, sauce reduced to a turn. Almost all the sauces and gravies seem spiced with more ingredients than appear in the average Schilling display. On the plate with your entree come a subtly sweet mound of rice cooked with red beans; a small heap of steamed cabbage; a fried slice of plantain; an egg-size capsule of festival bread that will remind you of a buttermilk doughnut. And you will want a tall glass of the restaurant's spicy, home-brewed ginger beer. 4335 Crenshaw Blvd.; (323) 290-4010. Open daily 7 a.m.-8 p.m. Dinner for two, food only, $13-$18. Beer only. Takeout. Lot parking in rear. AE, DC, DISC, MC, V and most ATM cards.
El Parian's sweet, mild goat meat has crispy parts and stewy parts, just like carnitas. It clings to the tiny goat ribs, which you suck, then spit back into the bowl. The broth, basically amplified pan drippings, is rich essence of goat and the single best Mexican dish I've eaten in Los Angeles. There's a thicket of cilantro to flavor the broth, a heap of chopped onion, limes to squeeze and a fat radish to sweeten your breath. The thick tortillas are warm and smell of fresh corn. The beer is very cold. Birria is supposed to be somewhat aphrodisiac - and a palliative for hangovers too, which is a special bonus on a Sunday morning. 1528 W. Pico Blvd.; (213) 386-7361. Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Lunch for two, food only, $7-$12. Beer. Cash only.
Merida specializes in the tropical cooking of the Yucatan, with all the citrus marinades, black beans, exotic grilling and steaming techniques, and ultra-searing habanero chiles that have made Yucatecan cuisine the hottest Mexican influence on Global Village cookbooks and chefs. Maybe the archetypal Yucatecan dish is cochinita pibil: slabs of fat pork rubbed with the yellow-red spice achiote, wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed. When Merida's cochinito is on (occasionally it's kind of dry), it's the best dish in the house, the rich, red blobs of meat so permeated with spice that it is difficult to tell where the seasoning ends and the pork begins. And some months are Goat Month here, according to signs posted around the restaurant, though the Jalisco-style birria is just okay: strong-tasting, a little stringy, without the subtle chile nuances you'd expect at one of the better Eastside birria places. 20 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena; (626) 792-7371. Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Dinner for two, food only, $12-$19. Beer and wine. Takeout. AE, DISC, MC, V.
Here is the best Mexican shrimp cocktail in town, a big parfait glass of crustaceans, cool and tart, elusively smoky, topped with a fan of sliced ripe avocado. Carne asada is exemplary, well-marinated, crusted with black pepper, chewy, beefy and hot; the carnitas are lean and moist, but full of flavor. The first-rate pozole has the funk of hominy, the bite of hot chile and the slightly gamy undertaste of long-stewed meat, but the chunks of boiled pork taste freshly cooked, and the soup has flavor even without the usual additions of chopped onion and oregano. The pork chile verde is spicy, tart, balanced, and there's a wonderful albondigas soup flavored with mint. And, oh yes, did I mention that Mi Ranchito serves birria? 12223 Washington Blvd., Culver City; (310) 398-6106. Open seven days for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Dinner for two, food only, $11-$23. Full bar. Takeout. Parking lot. AE, DISC, MC, V.
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