Golden Hill's Birria El Rey offers birriamen: a.k.a. beef birria ramen.
Birria must be rising in popularity around San Diego, because it’s gotten easier, not harder, to find the stewed meat dish during the pandemic. Mainly, we’re talking about Tijuana-style beef birria (Jalisco, the Mexican state credited with creating the uber savory dish, traditionally cooks it with goat. I don’t think San Diego’s ready to popularize goat just yet).
1015 25th St, San Diego
The latest birria-centric eatery opened up a few weeks ago in Golden Hill. Birria El Rey operates out of an extremely small kitchen, in a sort of brick shed that juts off a small office building to be part of a shopping strip next door. Fans of Humberto’s Taco Shop will know the spot.
I half-knew what to expect at El Rey. Like most birria shops, it lets you order shredded beef with onions and corn tortillas ($10.50, or $7.50 for a half order). There's the usual consomé (the stewed meat’s signature beef broth — $3 with beef, $1.50 without), plus a birria burrito made with beans and rice ($9), and a torta with melted cheese ($8.50).
As usual, the easiest way to try this birria on the spot is by ordering tacos. At $2.50 per taco, it’s tough to go wrong. But if there’s ever a time to fork over an additional 75 cents for cheese, this is it. The melted layer of griddle Monterey Jack makes the $3.25 quesabirria taco irresistible. In my heart, I wanted to keep eating those, and skip the rest of the menu.
A brick shack that specializes in birria dishes
Except, further down the menu, Birria El Rey offers a birria modification too interesting to pass up: birriamen. Or birria ramen.
In retrospect, the simple move seems rather obvious. This is a ramen-loving town, so why not dump noodles in with the consomé, and beef on top of that? Traditional ramen toppings such as pickled bamboo shoots and wood ear mushrooms are easily swapped out in favor of common birria garnishes: cilantro, diced onions, red onions, and radish.
A quesabirria taco made with Monterey jack cheese (left) is worth the 75 cent upgrade over the regular taco (right).
Now, there’s an obvious difference between the soy-based shio and shoyu broths of ramen, and a stock made from aromatic cuts of beef. Even the pork broth, tonkotsu, has a wholly different flavor profile than the slightly offal tang of a birria consomé. But the thick noodles of El Rey’s ramen don’t seem concerned about any deviation from the usual palate. They just do what noodles do; act as a vessel for a soup or sauce to shine.
Birriamen will never supplant tacos or burritos as my preferred mode of birria gluttony, nor replace tonkotsu with char-siu pork in my heart. But it’s not a bad way to get your birria fix on a cold day, and I have to applaud the effort.