Goat stew gives you strange powers
"Se habla English!!”
That’s what it says on the menu I’m checking out, here in National City. It also says “Birrio de Chivo, Guadalajara-style, perfected in Tijuana and imported into the USA.”
Perfect. Because tonight, goat is my game. ’Course, gamey’s the taste when it comes to goat, but I still love it. And ever since I lucked out on a $1.50 beef birria taco last week, I started obsessing on the need to find real goat birria.
Now, about seven, I’ve ended up right where Highland meets 24th Street and — jackpot! Premio gordo! Strip mall called National Plaza has this sign:
“Birrias, Chivos & Cheves.”
Birrias: spicy stews originally from Jalisco, most often goat or borrego, mutton. But also beef, chicken. Marinated in adobo spices and specially in paprika.
Cheves: Slang for cerveza. Beer. Like chela.
So, “Stews, Goats, and Beers,” right?
Pancho Villa’s call to gringo arms 101 years ago
It’s a modest place, but clean and kinda prosperous-looking. Has lime-green skirting, cream upper walls mostly covered by picture after picture of Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata, and other Mexican revolutionaries. Plus photos of TJ back in the day. And TJ bullfight posters.
The dozen tables are pine. So are the saddleback chairs that weigh nothing when you lift them. They sorta slip over the reddy-brown six-inch floor tiles. This gal Teresa says sit anywhere, so I grab a chair beneath a famous poster that Pancho Villa published back in January of 1915.
“Atención Gringo. For Gold & Glory! Come South of the Border and Ride with Pancho Villa, El Liberator of Mexico! Weekly Payments in Gold to Dynamiters, Machine Gunners, Railroaders.”
The place is busy. Couple of families eat away, plus younger guys slurp down mostly Clamatos or Micheladas — “levanta muertos” — bring-you-back-from-the-dead hangover cures.
“That’s what they say about birria, too, especially goat birria,” says Teresa when she comes over with the menu. “You should see us on Sunday morning. The fathers are all having goat birria.”
The glossy menu has everything from “quesabirria frita” ($5.95), a deep-fried empanada with shredded beef and a sesame sauce; to Huarache Azteca (Aztec “sandal,” an oval corn masa tortilla with meats, beans, $7.25). But the thing I’m really glad to see is that they do all-day breakfast. Dishes like chilaquiles ($8.25), machaca, and eggs ($8.95).
Regular menu includes menudo ($7.50); pork in green sauce ($8.50); drowned tortas (tortas ahogadas) with swiss-style chicken and cream, which sounds pretty delish or with carne asada (each $6.75); or “fritangas” like asada fries ($7.25); or, natch, tacos, mostly $1.99.
But, no. This time it’s the birria de chivo for me. Costs $10.50 (or $8.50 for half an order). Comes with a small birria broth and corn tortillas.
I get a bowl of chips and two salsas ($2.50) and a cheva — Negra Modelo ($3.95) — while I wait.
What comes is an oval plate with four large chunks of meat and bone. Each has a couple of sawn-off ribs sticking out. They sit in a lake of dark broth. Behind, the covered bowl of corn tortillas and bowls of chopped cilantro, limes, onions join with two hot sauce bottles, one red, one the color of peanut butter. And beside that, a cup filled with the birria consommé.
First surprise: the consommé’s filled with beans. Really sabroso.
So, I grab one of the tortillas, pick off some meat (and it picks off beautifully after six hours’ slow cooking, says Teresa), load up with the cilantro and onions, and have at it.
Question: How come this meat is not gamey like average chivo meat? It has the taste, but not that nostril-attacking goat whiff you usually get with each mouthful.
“The reason is the goat comes from New Zealand,” says this guy doing a tour of the tables. The owner, turns out. Arturo. “Organic. The goat are taken from the wild. Much purer meat. Nothing added. So no smell. Not greasy.”
Arturo says his wife Elena is the chef. “Her mother-in-law is from Guadalajara. She taught her everything. You should try the brown hot sauce on your goat. It is her creation. Sesame sauce. Salsa de ajonjoli. Her secret recipe.”
Ah. Guadalajara. Jalisco state. Home of birria. That explains a lot. I squirt some of the brown hot sauce on, and — oh, yes. Nutty, hot. Matches perfectly with the goat taste. Slurp in some white beans and consommé. What a combo. And filling? Believe it.
Arturo’s from Tijuana. Graduated from the Instituto Tecnológico down there. Started working at the Hotel del Coronado as a busboy, became a captain, stayed 28 years. Met everyone from the president of Mexico to movie stars such as Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis. Became manager at Mr. A’s. Worked at the US Grant. Then he and Elena started this ten years ago, in 2007.
“That was the worst year we could have picked. The recession,” he says. “But this was the first real birrieria in town. Elena had the truest recipes, from Guadalajara. And birria is a celebration dish. Quinceañeras, weddings, Christmas. So we survived.”
Hmm... Christmas around the corner, Carla would really dig this place. Guess we’re coming back.
One thing’s been nagging me.
“Why ‘birria’? Why that word, for a stew?”
“Well, perhaps if you imitate a baby kid goat, that will tell you,” says Arturo.
I try a bleat or two. “‘Bir-ria. Bi-rr-ia.’ Oh. Yeah. Oh, yeah,” I say. “Goats teaching us to speak Spanish. That is very cool.”
2401 Highland Avenue #104, National City
Hours: 9 a.m.–8 p.m. daily (till 9 p.m., Thursday, Friday, Saturday)
Flan dessert, $3.25
Prices: All-day breakfast dishes include machaca, eggs, $8.95; chilaquiles, $8.25; general menu includes pork in green sauce ($8.50); drowned tortas (tortas ahogadas) with chicken or carne asada, $6.75; menudo, $7.50; asada fries, $7.25; birrias taco, $1.99; birria de chivo (goat, broth, tortillas), $10.50 ($8.50 half order); quesabirria frita (deep-fried empanada, shredded beef), $5.95; Huarache Azteca (oval tortilla, meats, beans), $7.25; cahuamanta soup (shrimp, fish, tuna fin, stingray in bouillabaise), $9.95; flan dessert, $1.99; Check for $1.50 tenth anniversary taco deals
Buses: 929, 961
Nearest bus stops: Highland at E 24th Street (929); D Avenue at E 24th Street (961)
Trolley: Blue Line
Nearest Trolley Stop: 24th Street Transit Center (506 W. 22nd Street, National City)