Photo by Michael A. Gardiner
If Guy Fieri did a show on Mexico it would probably have to be called Street Carts, Shacks and Saloons instead of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives . And Fieri could do a lot worse on the first episode than feature Birrieria Uruapan (Calle Manuel Pérez Yáñez between Faustino Alvarado and Herminia Arroyo), located in the touristically challenged Northeastern reaches of Rosarito Beach. Love Triple D or hate it—I've got one foot planted firmly in each camp—what makes it work is the sense it highlights examples of a mythical "authentic American food." It's not about art but rather "honesty" and "food of the people" and how that's good.
Birrieria Uruapan pretty much nails that in a Baja way. Not exactly a street cart nor quite a shack—and definitely not a saloon—Emmanuel Ochoa's place is probably best described as a hole in a rather porous wall. It certainly is not a proper restaurant. There are barely two usable tables, and they're plastic at that.
But oh, lordy, lordy, the food that comes out of the pots over the burners in that tumbledown shack surely would meet no one's idea of code (building or otherwise). Birria is a stew of meat—traditionally goat but more often beef (as at Uruapan)—cooked slowly with cinnamon, clove and vinegar, yielding a thick, rich and exhilarating stew. Ochoa's broth is impossibly deep. All the beefy goodness is there in every spoonful but so are those sweet spices and the exotic, heady embrace of the vinegar. No single element of the flavor profile dominates; all are in perfect balance.
The menudo is much the same, featuring tripe that is toothsome and meaty, with just the slightest hint of mineral flavors. Like the birria, though, Uruapanís menudo is all about the broth. Meaty, yes, but with the chile flavors out front; chile flavors, yes, but their sweetness more than their heat. Again, it's the perfect, grounding balance of these flavors that makes the dish.
It may be tempting to look at pozole as menudo without the tripe, what with the similarity of the ingredients, but that would be a mistake. Ochoa's take highlights this point. Where the meat-chile balance of the menudo broth favors the chile, it is the pork that comes forward in the pozole—a dish that has been essential to Mexican cuisine since pre-Columbian times. Hominy, tender but retaining its form, soaks up the flavors developed over so many hours the bones fall apart as you pick the meat off them.
Ochoa explains his recipes are from his abuelita (grandmother) and his "abuelita's abuelita." And they taste that way, the lone weakness being the tortillas, made by hand, yes, but from Maseca (excellent for tamales, not so much for tortillas).
Birrieria Uruapan is exactly the sort of joint Guy Fieri would want to feature on Street Carts, Shacks and Saloons . It screams "authenticity." And he, of course, could scream something about "Flavortown" and the food being completely off the hook/out of bounds, and six other soon-to-be-trademarked clichés.
Maybe we'd better not tell Fieri about the place.