Like barbecue or pizza, an order of birria means different things depending on where you are and who’s cooking. There’s a good chance you’ll get a bowl of goat stew, deep crimson and layered with spices, served with a stack of tortillas and several smaller bowls of condiments and salsas. Sometimes instead of goat it will be made with lamb or beef, and regional styles or the chef’s preferences can mean chilies with varying levels of heat or different sets of seasonings. Broadly speaking, though, birria is a dish of long-cooked meat marinated in a complex adobo of spices and chilies and traditionally served for celebrations, holidays … or as a weekend hangover cure.
We are fortunate to have a wealth of excellent Jalisco-style goat birria options in the L.A. area, from El Parian to Birrieria de Don Boni and beyond. But L.A. is also home to a few specialists in birria de res done in the style of Tijuana, beef birria served in snack form, as tacos, mulitas or quesadillas with a Styrofoam cup of consomme on the side. Three of the best versions in town can be found at three trucks in South L.A., which makes this the ideal place for a Tijuana-style birria de res taco crawl.
On the corner of Maple and Adams it looks like there’s a barbershop with a birria truck out front; in fact, it’s a birria truck with a barbershop behind it. There are plenty of people inside Casa de Cortes Gonzalez getting buzz cuts and clean fades, but on a typical sunny day there are about twice as many people sitting on the tarped-over patio or lined up in front of the truck to get some of Birrieria Gonzalez’s fabulous birria de res. Tacos come wrapped up in little cones in classic Tijuana style, slick with red broth but sturdy enough to maintain their form, heavily spiced but still deeply beefy. The tacos are good but the consomme is spectacular, rich and layered and completely addictive, with a concentrated intensity of flavor that will linger in the back of your mind for days to come.
2524 Maple Ave., Historic South-Central; (323) 216-8795, @birrieria_gonzalez.
Birria La Tia Juana
It must be something about barbershops: Like Birrieria Gonzalez, La Tia Juana truck posts up outside a spot called Fade Masterz, a narrow shop on a busy section of Main Street just across the 110 from Exposition Park. There’s less seating and usually a smaller crowd than at Gonzalez, but the birria is just as worthy. Their tacos have the perfect snap, a hit of bright chili flavor and a rush of liquid beef when you bite into the generous lump of birria in each double-stacked tortilla. The mulitas are extravagant, loaded with birria and then overstuffed with cheese, stacking rich on top of rich, cut with a hit of salsa and a spritz of lime. You can’t cure Friday’s bad decisions on Saturday morning, but these mulitas can provide some palliative care.
4027 S Main St., Historic South-Central; (213) 985-9778, @birria_la_tiajuana.
Teddy’s Red Tacos
Teddy’s Red Tacos sets up its operation right against the defunct train tracks along Slauson, a handful of picnic tables under a big white pop-up tent next to the truck. A single large speaker connected to someone’s iPhone pumps out ballads at top volume, punctuated by the occasional ping of an incoming text message. As the name suggests, Teddy's standard tacos are a little different from its compatriots’, with tortillas dipped in consomme and then fried, creating a crispy contrast with the tender birria and staining them bright red. The effect is pretty excellent, both texturally interesting and deep in flavor, almost like the similarly dipped-then-fried pambazo, or Philippe’s French dip. If you order a cup of the slightly thinner consomme, you’ll get some of the fried red tortillas on the side, but with the red tacos it almost feels redundant — you’ve already got your consomme cooked in.
731 Slauson Ave., South Park; (323) 495-9654, @teddysredtacos.