Street Food Special: How to Make the Best Birria Tacos
Thanks to social media, these messy, mouthwatering tacos inspired by the stew from Jalisco, Mexico are trending around the world. Now you can make them at home.
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Above: Birria Tacos. Article, recipe, and photos by Ericka Sanchez.
The first time I experienced birria was at a baptism celebration for my cousin’s daughter in the Mexican state of Coahuila, about 30 years ago. A large white tent shaded rows and rows of tables with fold-out metal chairs. Over 100 guests showed up ready to dance, laugh, drink, and celebrate with a plateful of my aunt’s famous birra de chivo (goat birria).
In its traditional form, birria is a Mexican delicacy and a meaty, celebratory stew served during the holidays, at weddings, quinceañeras, and baptisms. It’s also served at afterparties as a hangover cure. The rich broth, made with a medley of dried red chiles, is the star of the dish.
In recent years, birria has evolved as a culinary fusion of a taco and birria, known as birria tacos, or a quesadilla and birria mash-up known as quesabirrias — often with beef instead of goat. These sloppy street tacos are served with a small bowl of the meat and chile consommé to further drench in.
The trendy tacos began to take over social media channels about 10 years ago. Many tourists and locals visiting the food trucks of Tijuana in Baja California began publishing mesmerizing clips of sizzling red tacos gooey with cheese. They eventually made their way to the food trucks of the U.S., and are now part of our street food favorites (and #birriatacos has millions of likes on TikTok and almost 250K followers on Instagram).
Beef birria tacos are messy, mouthwatering, crispy, and irresistible. Make sure you have a large stack of napkins, because you’re going to want to enjoy (or catch!) every drop.
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Birria tacos Q&A
If you’re new to birria tacos, start here.
1. What are birria tacos?
Classic birria stew is made with meat cooked in a spicy-rich chile consommé, served in bowls with a stack of corn tortillas, a side of rice and beans, and topped with white onion, oregano, fresh cilantro, radish slices, and a squeeze of lime juice. Take that same concept and put it between tortillas that are bathed in the chile broth (with more on the side for dunking), and you have birria tacos.
2. Where did birria tacos originate?
Originally from the Mexican state of Jalisco, traditional birria stew is served all over Mexico and has made its way to mom and pop Mexican restaurants in America. Birria and quesabirria tacos first started appearing at food trucks in Tijuana, Mexico.
3. What meat is in birria tacos?
Birria is customarily made with red meat such as goat, lamb, or beef slow-cooked to the “fall off the bone” stage until it literally melts in your mouth.
4. How to reheat birria tacos
You can simmer the meat and sauce for birria tacos up to 2 days ahead, then reheat them until hot on the stovetop. But for best texture, assemble the tacos shortly before serving.
Birria tacos ingredients
The list of ingredients for birria tacos may be a bit lengthy, but you’ll be surprised how easily everything comes together.
Short ribs and beef shank. Birria stew is traditionally made with goat, lamb, or beef, and I made this recipe with beef short ribs and beef shank. They’re readily available and most cooks are familiar with cooking them slowly to tenderness. Birria can certainly be made with other types of beef such as sirloin and beef chuck roast or any type of shredded meat. Prefer white meat? You can make birria tacos with chicken, but watch the prep time, cooking time, and total time because chicken cooks faster.
Red dried chiles. Every cook has their preferred dried red chile combination for their signature birria sauce. For me, guajillo chiles must always be part of the mix. I pair them with at least one other flavorful dried red chile such as pasilla or ancho chiles because guajillos on their own tend to be bitter. If guajillos aren’t available, you can use dried red California or New Mexico chiles. Feel free to add puya chiles or chiles de arbol if you prefer something spicier. Look for dried red chiles in the Hispanic foods aisle at your nearest grocery store and online.
Onions, roma tomatoes, and 7 cloves garlic. These vegetables are the base of the sauce, along with chiles. For the most flavor, make sure your tomatoes are ripe and have deep red color.
Vinegar. For a tasty tang, this recipe calls for distilled white vinegar. Apple cider vinegar works just as well.
Other seasonings. Salt, black pepper, cumin, thyme, dried Mexican oregano (or regular oregano), cinnamon stick, and bay leaves are my favorite spices for the birria sauce. The combination brings out a smokiness this dish is known for.
Cheese. As soon as you add cheese to this birria tacos recipe, it becomes a quesabirria recipe. Go with any melting cheese such as mozzarella, Monterey jack, munster, or Oaxaca cheese.
Corn tortillas. Because quesabirria tacos are wet and hold a substantial amount of birria, cheese, diced onion, and cilantro, the tortillas must be thick and rustic. If the tortillas you buy are soft and humid out of the packaging, they will fall apart. If needed, lay out single tortillas on a kitchen towel overnight to remove excess moisture. Reheat them on a griddle or a few seconds in a microwave to soften prior to frying them in vegetable oil, adding filling, and soaking them in sauce.
How to make birria tacos sauce
Rich with chiles and seasonings, the consomé is the heart of birria tacos.
Start with the dried chiles. Using kitchen scissors, cut off the stems and shake out the seeds. Cut each dried chile lengthwise and remove any veins and leftover seeds. Then give the chiles a rinse. Rinse chiles and set aside.
Next you’re going to saute diced onion, tomatoes, and garlic in a Dutch oven until soft. Add black pepper, cumin, thyme, oregano, cinnamon, and bay leaves, then the chiles, vinegar, and some water. Cook, stirring occasionally, until chilies break apart easily when pressed with a spoon, about 10 minutes..
Now just transfer the chile mixture to a blender and carefully blend until smooth with the lid slightly ajar and a kitchen towel draped over it to catch any hot splatters.
How to cook meat for birria tacos
Once you’ve pureed the red chile mixture, pour it into the Dutch oven and add 8 cups of water, some salt, and the beef short ribs and beef shank. Simmer until the meat is tender enough to pull from the bones and can easily be separated with 2 forks – this takes about 2 1/2 hours.
Let the meat cool until you can handle it, then discard the bones and chop or shred the meat into small pieces.
How to assemble birria tacos
This part’s a little messy, but it’s worth it.
To assemble each taco, heat a little of the chile broth at a time in a frying pan. Place a corn tortilla in the broth and heat it on each side until it’s lightly wet and softened but not soggy. Sprinkle the tortilla with a little cheese (if you’re making quesabirria), then top with some shredded beef, a sprinkle of onion, and cilantro. Fold the tortilla over to close.
When you’ve got a tray of filled tacos, sprinkle them with more onion and cilantro. Serve the birria tacos with radish slices and lime wedges. Ladle the remaining broth into bowls and serve on the side for dunking.
Get the beef birria tacos recipe
Now that you know how the birria tacos come together, let's get cooking!
Savor the flavors of Mexico
Earthy dried chiles and beans, mellow dried corn, tangy limes, and fresh and citrusy cilantro are just a few of the Mexican flavors we love, and there are so many ways to enjoy them, as you'll see in these next articles.