Its name translates as "The Railroad" though there's no rail line in the vicinity and likely never was. Googling the place is futile, so you wonder whether it really exists. But the lamb tacos and broth served at El Ferrocarril (Calle Rio Seco 179 at the corner of Calle Once) in Ensenada make you forget such trivialities.
In one sense, perhaps, the name isn't such a misnomer. Travel and food have always been companions, if not always soulmates. First we traveled to find food to survive and feed our guts. Now we do so to thrive and feed our souls (our guts, too).
San Diego's airport has spent a pretty penny developing food options for travelers showing off the city's culinary scene to tourists and commercial travelers. Mexicali once offered something similar outside its train station: a row of stalls offering tacos de Borrego . And that is what El Ferrocarril is about: lamb tacos like those outside Mexicali's now shuttered train station.
El Ferrocarril describes its lamb dishes as "birria." The term more commonly denotes a dish of slow-braised meat (usually goat or beef but sometimes lamb) in a rich broth spiked with a chile slurry, cinnamon, clove and vinegar. It yields a heady stew. The lamb at El Ferrocarril is indeed slow-braised with chiles, but instead of the sweet spices I associate with birria the result is a rich broth and tender meat that is the very essence of lamb.
When you finally get to the front of El Ferrocarril's line—on three trips at various different times of day the place was always busy—the tacos you're handed are the picture of simplicity. They are nothing more than delicious corn tortillas holding rolls of marvelously moist shredded lamb meat flecked with bits of guajillo chile. Garnishes of cilantro, shredded cabbage, salsa and onions, as well as lime, are available either on the counter or at each table.
Simple? Minimal? Yes, but perfection. That roll of meat manages to be densely savory and, somehow, have a certain lightness at the same time. The chiles in the braise give it an ethereal quality that's underlined by a squeeze of lime and bit of the shredded cabbage. The cilantro, salsa and the tortilla itself ground the dish.
Perhaps the only thing that could say "lamb" more clearly than El Ferrocarril's tacos is its caldo : the braising liquid from the birria itself. Again, it is a bit of simple perfection. Again, it is the essence of lamb. And it is addictive. I've had good lamb tacos before but I don't know that I've ever had a lamb broth more deeply flavored than that one (though the broth at El Borrego in City Heights comes close).
There are other things to order at El Ferrocarril—beef tacos and an orden of the lamb birria (a combination of the broth and lamb)—but why? Sip the essence of the lamb in the broth and eat its essence in a taco and you will be transported to a happier place. Almost as if you were on the railroad.