1310 Third Avenue, Chula Vista
The broaching of the subject is inevitable: in any extended conversation, I’ll always find a way to sneak in a “Have you eaten anything good recently?” And, quite often, that little question bears fruit.
A good example is a recent conversation with a coworker, Karina, who mentioned that her husband’s favorite restaurant was Birrieria La Guadalajara on Third Avenue in Chula Vista. Karina had my undivided attention for two reasons: first, my wife and I had driven past the place the previous weekend and wondered about the shop; second, Karina and her husband’s families hail from Guadalajara, where birria — usually roasted goat or lamb seasoned with a paste made of various chilies and served in a spicy broth (consommé) made from the drippings of the roasting meat — and tortas ahogadas share the crown as the most well-known dishes of the region. So, once I learned that this was their birria place, there was no question we’d be checking it out posthaste.
Located in a newish strip mall that seems to have no other active tenants, the birrieria is simply furnished; it looks like a miniature version of those thousand-seat birrierias I’ve seen in photos and on television. There’s the flatscreen television eternally tuned to a soccer match; the music, at least when we’ve been there, doesn’t blare. Jorge, the young man who manages the restaurant, always seems to be smiling. Behind a partition on the east side of the restaurant is the heart and soul of the establishment: the kitchen area, where a woman makes tortillas fresh for every order.
Birria of the species res (beef), borrego (lamb), chivo (goat) — plus one I can’t recall seeing very often, puerco (pork) — occupy a good 40 percent of the single-page menu. Each is available by the pound, as a taco, and in two different plate sizes. Did I mention that birria is breakfast food? And, of course, I’ve heard the claims that this spicy stew wards off the after-effects of a night of over-indulgence. Though I love chili-fortified food, aside from putting a couple of drops of hot sauce on my eggs, I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about having something spicy for breakfast until we visited Chengdu a year ago and enthusiastically consumed ma-la (numbing hot) Sichuan dishes for breakfast. Getting those endorphins going early in the day really agreed with me.
The birria (with the protein of your choice) arrives in a shallow bowl engulfed by bright red consommé. The broth here is only mildly spicy and seasoned just enough to enhance the flavor of the meat. The missus and I were unified in saying that we preferred the lamb to the goat. To us, the lamb was more tender, fattier, and had more of a distinct gamey taste, that “flavor of the pasture.” Grab a hefty fresh and hot tortilla, throw in some meat, add onions, cilantro, perhaps a squeeze of lime, and one of two salsas, and with a final dip into the broth, you have a rewarding if messy treat.
As much as we liked the birria, we’ve come to find other dishes on the deceptively simple menu that we enjoy even more. The Borrego a la Plancha, the most expensive dish on the menu at ten bucks and change, is probably our favorite. Roasted lamb is placed on the griddle, creating a lovely crust, then served with a cup of consommé so you can moisten the meat to your satisfaction. Rice and beans accompany the standard garnishes.
We were curious about Taco Rojo. We were told that one of the owners is from Ensenada (the other is from Guadalajara), so they decided to include this delightful dish, where a fresh tortilla is dipped in the consommé, then placed on the flat-top to brown, creating nice crunchy patches. The taco is then filled with the meat of your choice. It is wonderfully salty and full-flavored.
One of the women who works with my wife is from Guadalajara, and she says the dish she misses most is cabeza en su jugo, where cow head is slowly simmered to create a wonderful soup, rich with beef flavor. The version here is indeed rich; the rendered collagen and fat luxuriously wrap themselves around your tongue, and the meat melts in your mouth. Usually, we’ll each have Taco Rojo and share the additional dish.
The young manager recently told me that their beer-and-wine license should be approved by the end of February. Also, since mariachi is believed to have originated in the state of Jalisco, once the beer and wine are in place, music will likely follow.
Every year, the missus and I take one or two trips, inspired either by places like Machu Picchu and Angkor Wat, or by certain foods. Our last trip resulted from repeated visits to our favorite Turkish restaurant. After eating at Birrieria La Guadalajara almost every weekend, a trip to that city might be in our future. I’ve heard it’s nice there in September. ■
Birrieria La Guadalajara 1310 Third Ave, Chula Vista, 619-934-2947
Hours: Daily 8:00 a.m.–7:00 p.m.
Fare: Well-known soups and stews from the Guadalajara area
Vibe: Casual, family-friendly
Seating: Wide open
Must try: Borrego a la Plancha, Taco Rojo, Birria de Borrego