Photo by Michael Gardiner
Quesadilla de birria
There could be worse places to look for happiness than the bottom of a bowl of birria. Church, for instance. Or maybe the ballot box. High cuisine is great and tacos have their charms, but is there anything better than pulling up to a roadside birrieria, seeing lines out the door and tucking into that spicy meat stew? It’s the sort of thing that’ll cure any kind of hangover you have: physical, spiritual or maybe even political. It’s an attraction on just about every Mexican roadside and I’ve been to none better than Birrieria “Isabel” (Calle Jesús González, 1489, Colonia Lucio Blanco) in Rosarito.
Isabel isn’t exactly “Captain Kendrick’s Memorial Hot Dog Wildlife Preserve” from Tom Robbins’ Another Roadside Attraction. But a place doesn’t need either hot dogs or Jesus’ bones to catch your attention when you can’t see into it from the road because there are just too damned many people clogging the cart and doorway. It’s even better when the people around that doorway don’t look much like me.
The menu at Isabel is short: birria, birria and birria. Order the full bowl or half bowl, birria tacos, quesadillas, a quesataco (of birria), consomé (of birria) or tortilla sandwiches of, wait for it, birria. You’re pretty much getting birria, a beef stew cooked low and slow with guajillo and pasilla chiles, vinegar and sweet spices (cinnamon and clove) until the meat falls off the bone in a vain attempt to avoid the worst of the rhythmic “thwacking” of the cook’s cleaver. The result is thick, rich and, at its best, utterly exhilarating.
Isabel’s bowls are birria in its truest and purest form: broth, shredded meat, onion, cilantro and (somewhat unusually) beans. The broth is rich and spicy, the meat is savory and soft, the onions provide textural contrast, and the cilantro serves as a colorful herbal element. It may be the perfect food. It will cure what ails you. Neither God nor government have a better plan.
Or go the other direction and get the consomé with tortillas. It’s broth garnished with a sprinkling of diced onions and served with warm, earthy corn tortillas dipped in fat. Sip it out of the cup or try using the plastic teaspoon it offers, but the ultimate delivery device is those corn tortillas.
Isabel, like most roadside birria shacks, offers the stuff in taco form, specifically street taco-style (doubled small corn tortillas in a vaguely triangular paper wrapper). They’re good, they’re quick and you can eat a lot of them. Or trade the corn tortillas for flour and get the quesadilla: the cheese rounds out birria’s more angular flavors.
Birria is not high cuisine. It’s not even Mexico’s most celebrated street food. But there’s a reason roadside birria spots are crowded: birria’s good, it’s honest, and it’s oddly wholesome, heady and true. It is everything Tom Robbins celebrated in Another Roadside Attraction, without Jesus’ mummified remains. Find your salvation at church if you choose, or prescription drugs if you have refills remaining, but you could do much worse than digging to the bottom of the bowl at Isabel.