I’ve always been a goat guy. Yes, it’s sometimes gamey, but that’s the point: goat meat’s never bland. So today I’m thinking, why not? Right here on Imperial in Sherman Heights, where a couple of roosters are crowing like there’s no tomorrow, I notice an orange-canopied sidewalk-eatery’s sign. “Birrias: Chivos & Cheves.” Hmm... Birria’s stew, chivo is goat, cheves is slang for cervezas, beer. So hey, guess since I’m here…though I don’t see any sign of beer…I head on in.
It’s all fresh and bright inside, with light-varnished wooden chairs and tables, green skirting, orange window frames, and white walls. And lots of photos of Tijuana from around the 1920s.
I’m a bit worried about what I’ve let myself in for. I know that chivo doesn’t come cheap. Then this young guy comes out from the kitchen area and says, “May I help you?”
They have a menu on the wall above the pinewood counter, but I grab the paper one in front of me. “Se Habla English!” it says. The front page advertises $4.95 Clamato-based drinks, levantamuertos: “Rise from the dead.” Ah. We’re talking hangover cures.
“A lot of people eat goat meat in the morning for hangovers, too,” says the guy. Christopher. “You want birria?”
I’m about to nod when I tell myself to check prices first. And, hey, they have plenty of things apart from the birria. All-day breakfasts — you can get a steak and egg for $6.95, ham and eggs ($5.95), machaca estilo Tijuas (meaning TJ-style) $5.95, and even menudo ($5.95). Tacos with fish, carne asada, or birria cost $1.75. Tortas “bravas,” big hamburgerish sandwiches of birria-style beef or carne asada or chicken are all $5.75 (beef-ham combos are a buck more), but you can see from the space they give it that the big deal is la especialidad de la casa. Straight goat or beef birria.
Uh, yeah. Only problem here is that a full order costs $8.95. Though they do have a half-order for $6.95.
Screw it. I’m going for the full. Because, hey, birria is birria. Why the big deal? Because from what friends tell me, it’s more than just food. It has an aura about it. An emotional thing. It’s a little bit of national defiance. They say the word birria in, like, Spanish-Spanish, means “poor quality” — not so refined. So Mexicans adopted the word with pride because birria is a working-class dish, goat stew usually, cooked with a base of dried roasting peppers. And it’s what peppers you choose and how you combine them for the roasting that makes or breaks this dish.
“My mom does that,” Christopher says. “She’s so good. At home we kept saying, ‘Mom! We could get rich with your recipes! Open a restaurant!’ Finally Dad opened our first one in National City. That was January 2007. Then eight months ago we opened this second one, here.”
So I ask for goat birria, full order. And a Sangria Señorial — a nonalcoholic grape juice, $1.50.
I sit down at a corner table. Soccer’s on the TV. France and Italy. Christopher brings out a cup of consommé soup, a round box of hot corn tortillas, and my bottle of sangria. Next he puts down a molcajete with chopped-up onions, cilantro, and a couple of half-limes inside. Then Gilberto passes him an oval Bakelite plate filled with my birria. Basically just chunks of long ’n’ slow–roasted goat meat and ribs in a rich brown sauce. He also drops a couple of tall plastic squirter bottles.
“Salsas. They’re both my mom’s. The lighter one’s sesame. People love it.”
I sip the soup. Ahh... Birria juices, mostly drippings from the slow-cooked goat, I’d say. But hiding down in the liquid are beans and onions and stuff. Deelish. I grab a steaming corn tortilla from the hot box, stick onions, cilantro, and some of the beans in it, squirt the red salsa on, roll it all up, dip it into the broth, and take a bite along with a chunk of goat. Don’t know if that’s the way, but it’s a heckuva combo and taste. And, unlike other goat birria I’ve had, this doesn’t have a gamey kickback aftertaste.
“That’s my mom too,” says Christopher. “She does it Guadalajara-style. They say it’s the best in Mexico.”
Still, he says, this isn’t quite the real thing. “Here, health authorities say we can’t include things like the organs and the eyes and the head in the birria. People ask for those parts, but we just get the meat, sent precut.”
I finish up. Still haven’t used his mom’s other salsa, though, the one with a sesame flavor. “That really goes with our queso frito birria,” says Christopher. “It’s like an empanada. We put masa, birria, Monterey [jack] cheese, cream, marinated purple onion, and top it with Mom’s sesame salsa.”
Man. Sounds too good. And only about four more bucks. I go for it. It’s like a super-savory pastry turnover, with birria meat and cheese inside and stripes of that sesame seed sauce over the top. It’s good, but by the time I’m halfway through, I’m fit to bust.
As I waddle out, I notice the sign again. Birrias, Chivos & Cheves. “What about the cheves — the beer?” I ask Christopher. He shakes his head. “Getting the liquor license...well, it’s taking a while.”
So now I’m at the bus stop a few steps away. Get talking with an elderly Mexican gent who’s also waiting for the Number 4. He tells me that goats only came to the Americas with Cortés, but birria goes way back. “The Aztecs used deer,” he says, “or possums or armadillo or turkey. Goat’s only been on the birria menu since 1500.”
“Only” on the menu since 1500? Oh, man. Beautiful. And people say we have no history here?
- The Place: Birrias, Chivos & Cheves, 2709 Imperial Avenue, Sherman Heights, 619-236-8012; also at 2401 Highland Avenue, suite 104, National City, 619-477-7660
- Type of Food: Mexican
- Prices: Breakfast steak and egg, $6.95; ham and eggs, $5.95; machaca, “TJ-style,” $5.95; menudo, $5.95; tacos (fish, carne asada, birria), $1.75; tortas “bravas,” birria, chicken, or beef, $5.75; goat or beef birria, $8.95 (full order), $6.95 (half-order); queso frito birria (turnover with masa, birria, Monterey jack cheese, cream, marinated onion, sesame salsa), $4.25
- Hours: 8:00 a.m.–8:00 p.m., daily
- Bus: 4
- Nearest Bus Stops: Imperial at Hensley (eastbound); Imperial at 28th (westbound)
[2009 Editor's Note: Birrias, Chivos & Cheves has since closed.]