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Birria Madrigal: gourmet goat “garbage”

The Aztecs found ways to tame and flavor this foreign meat

Pioneering birria: pop up comes every Monday to the Barrio
Pioneering birria: pop up comes every Monday to the Barrio

Barrio Logan? It’s hopping. A sort of food cluster is forming right around Thorn Brewing’s Barrio Logan factory. They’ve opened a big eatery called ReBru Spirits, where — don’t ask me how — they convert unsold beer into whiskey or vodka. Then, on the far side, there’s a beer garden and stage where you can hear the likes of Bill Caballero and his Cuban jazz jam. Plus, at this end, I spot a mysterious jungly space where they serve Yerba mate: Kové. “The world’s first alcoholic yerba mate company,” the sign says. “Party in your plants!” Huh. I’ve happened into a beer-type product that’s beer-free, gluten-free, kombucha-like, and also five percent alcohol. It looks like they have a following among a young, organic, vegan, gluten-free crowd.

Place

Thorn Brewing Co.

1745 National Avenue, San Diego

Problem is, the actual food places aren’t open right now, and now is 7pm. Even ReBru is temporarily closed while they handle a big private party. But help is at hand. Thorn has a cute little bar right inside, next to all those huge vats in the space that used to be a giant ships’ boiler factory. Plus benches and tables outside on the National Avenue sidewalk. And a red tent has popped up on that sidewalk with a sign that says “Birria Madrigal.”

Angel and his chef build their business one day a week. Coming back after Covid

The guy at Birria Madrigal’s tent, Angel, is serving up something that smells like it would fit perfectly with any of the beers here. I see a simple menu on the table in the tent. They have other stuff, but the birrias feature big. “Taco,” says the first entry. “Corn tortilla with birria, onion, cilantro, and salsa, $2.75.” The Taco Cholo is pretty much the same thing, but in a cheese shell. (They also call this a “Keto taco.” They cut the carbs by replacing the tortilla with a crisp cheese shell,$8). And if there’s, like, four of you, they have a neat “family” deal where you “build your own tacos.” Meaning, for $25, they’ll give you a plate of birria with onion, cilantro, and 12 tortillas. Sounds expensive, but for four people, that’d come out at around six bucks each.

My personal must-have is the consomé, soup made from the drippings of the meats cooking on the grills. Dee-lish! And at $2 each for 10 ounces of broth with onion, cilantro, and salsa, a great investment. Or, for $5, you can add birria and get a really nutritious soup. Besides that, the one item I am setting my heart on here, as these biting breezes of early evening set in, costs a relatively whopping $15.75. Can’t help it. It’s the birria fries: “crispy fries topped with melted cheese, birria, shredded cheese, onion, cilantro, salsa, avocado sauce, chipotle sauce, and cotija cheese.” So I go for that, because it’s, well, something hot and wicked, not coldly healthy. These dishes are pretty much like other Mex combos: basically fries and melted cheese, only with beef birria. And when I find a beer and a stand-up heater and a nice long bench out here, I’m happy as Larry. Then, when Angel brings the consomé, I find that it’s perfect in the way it adds a warm savory liquid to the mix.

Birria: tough road to respectability

As I munch, I muse. Birria may originate from central Mexico but it’s TJ that took this ancient mix of meat and spuds and soup and launched it across the border and out into the wider world. What happened? We have to go way back: 1519, Hernan Cortez arrives in Mexico. He brings goats with him. He releases the goats, and — unintended consequences — the goats prosper mightily, go forth and multiply, and run wild. They eat everything in their path, including Aztec and other Native American field crops. They mow through Mayan seedbeds. Result: a devastating famine among Native Americans. Result #2: Native Americans have nothing to eat but goat, the meat Spaniards so despise for its toughness and smelliness and gaminess that they called it “birria” — a food to be despised, like “trash food.”

And yet the Aztecs found ways to tame and flavor this foreign meat. Long marination in spices, slow pressure-cooking in underground ovens that kept the liquids in, to flavor and tenderize the one thing that was plentiful at the time, that goat meat. Fast forward 400 years to 1950, Tijuana. Guadalupe Zárate, taquero, moves from Coatzingo, in the Mexican state of Puebla, to Tijuana, seeking his fortune. He sets up a taco stand, and includes goat birria in his line-up. He uses mainly beef, because by now, it is cheaper than goat. And he takes the advice people are giving him — to add more liquid to his birria mix. Thus he creates the dish that makes him a legend among local birrierias: TJ-style birria. Meaning, birria with consomé. Thirty years later, 1980: Juan Jose Romero opens a TJ restaurant, “Tacos Aaron,” serving goat and beef birria, and soon after, the novel quesabirria — cheesy beef birria tacos. All are wildly popular. The ideas cross from TJ to SD to LA. The rest is history. Birria — a word for garbage, junk, slop, a worthless person — is now a mainstreamed gourmet item. The story of birria beef tacos soaked in soup is ready to become legend. Remember the Rubio’s fish taco phenomenon? From one San Felipe taco shack, to San Diego, to 157 franchises in 98 cities across America? Some guy could do the same with birria.

My birria certainly fills me up. But I spare a moment to remember all the people Cortez’s goats starved as they swarmed like locusts over the New World back in the 1520s, and to marvel at the way the locals transformed that tragedy into a dish that has become Mexico’s pride.

This is Monday. For sure, I’ll be back for the birria, TJ-style.

The Place: Birria Madrigal, at Thorn Brewing 1745 National Avenue, Barrio Logan, 619-255-9679

Prices: Tacos, $2.75; taco combo, 3 plus soup for $10; queso taco, $4.50; Taco Cholo, $8; quesabirria, $8, $13; birria fries, $15.75; birria chips, $17

Buses: 12, 901, 929

Nearest bus stops: Logan and Beardsley (12); National Avenue and Beardsley (901); Sigsbee Street and Newton (929)

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Pioneering birria: pop up comes every Monday to the Barrio
Pioneering birria: pop up comes every Monday to the Barrio

Barrio Logan? It’s hopping. A sort of food cluster is forming right around Thorn Brewing’s Barrio Logan factory. They’ve opened a big eatery called ReBru Spirits, where — don’t ask me how — they convert unsold beer into whiskey or vodka. Then, on the far side, there’s a beer garden and stage where you can hear the likes of Bill Caballero and his Cuban jazz jam. Plus, at this end, I spot a mysterious jungly space where they serve Yerba mate: Kové. “The world’s first alcoholic yerba mate company,” the sign says. “Party in your plants!” Huh. I’ve happened into a beer-type product that’s beer-free, gluten-free, kombucha-like, and also five percent alcohol. It looks like they have a following among a young, organic, vegan, gluten-free crowd.

Place

Thorn Brewing Co.

1745 National Avenue, San Diego

Problem is, the actual food places aren’t open right now, and now is 7pm. Even ReBru is temporarily closed while they handle a big private party. But help is at hand. Thorn has a cute little bar right inside, next to all those huge vats in the space that used to be a giant ships’ boiler factory. Plus benches and tables outside on the National Avenue sidewalk. And a red tent has popped up on that sidewalk with a sign that says “Birria Madrigal.”

Angel and his chef build their business one day a week. Coming back after Covid

The guy at Birria Madrigal’s tent, Angel, is serving up something that smells like it would fit perfectly with any of the beers here. I see a simple menu on the table in the tent. They have other stuff, but the birrias feature big. “Taco,” says the first entry. “Corn tortilla with birria, onion, cilantro, and salsa, $2.75.” The Taco Cholo is pretty much the same thing, but in a cheese shell. (They also call this a “Keto taco.” They cut the carbs by replacing the tortilla with a crisp cheese shell,$8). And if there’s, like, four of you, they have a neat “family” deal where you “build your own tacos.” Meaning, for $25, they’ll give you a plate of birria with onion, cilantro, and 12 tortillas. Sounds expensive, but for four people, that’d come out at around six bucks each.

My personal must-have is the consomé, soup made from the drippings of the meats cooking on the grills. Dee-lish! And at $2 each for 10 ounces of broth with onion, cilantro, and salsa, a great investment. Or, for $5, you can add birria and get a really nutritious soup. Besides that, the one item I am setting my heart on here, as these biting breezes of early evening set in, costs a relatively whopping $15.75. Can’t help it. It’s the birria fries: “crispy fries topped with melted cheese, birria, shredded cheese, onion, cilantro, salsa, avocado sauce, chipotle sauce, and cotija cheese.” So I go for that, because it’s, well, something hot and wicked, not coldly healthy. These dishes are pretty much like other Mex combos: basically fries and melted cheese, only with beef birria. And when I find a beer and a stand-up heater and a nice long bench out here, I’m happy as Larry. Then, when Angel brings the consomé, I find that it’s perfect in the way it adds a warm savory liquid to the mix.

Birria: tough road to respectability

As I munch, I muse. Birria may originate from central Mexico but it’s TJ that took this ancient mix of meat and spuds and soup and launched it across the border and out into the wider world. What happened? We have to go way back: 1519, Hernan Cortez arrives in Mexico. He brings goats with him. He releases the goats, and — unintended consequences — the goats prosper mightily, go forth and multiply, and run wild. They eat everything in their path, including Aztec and other Native American field crops. They mow through Mayan seedbeds. Result: a devastating famine among Native Americans. Result #2: Native Americans have nothing to eat but goat, the meat Spaniards so despise for its toughness and smelliness and gaminess that they called it “birria” — a food to be despised, like “trash food.”

And yet the Aztecs found ways to tame and flavor this foreign meat. Long marination in spices, slow pressure-cooking in underground ovens that kept the liquids in, to flavor and tenderize the one thing that was plentiful at the time, that goat meat. Fast forward 400 years to 1950, Tijuana. Guadalupe Zárate, taquero, moves from Coatzingo, in the Mexican state of Puebla, to Tijuana, seeking his fortune. He sets up a taco stand, and includes goat birria in his line-up. He uses mainly beef, because by now, it is cheaper than goat. And he takes the advice people are giving him — to add more liquid to his birria mix. Thus he creates the dish that makes him a legend among local birrierias: TJ-style birria. Meaning, birria with consomé. Thirty years later, 1980: Juan Jose Romero opens a TJ restaurant, “Tacos Aaron,” serving goat and beef birria, and soon after, the novel quesabirria — cheesy beef birria tacos. All are wildly popular. The ideas cross from TJ to SD to LA. The rest is history. Birria — a word for garbage, junk, slop, a worthless person — is now a mainstreamed gourmet item. The story of birria beef tacos soaked in soup is ready to become legend. Remember the Rubio’s fish taco phenomenon? From one San Felipe taco shack, to San Diego, to 157 franchises in 98 cities across America? Some guy could do the same with birria.

My birria certainly fills me up. But I spare a moment to remember all the people Cortez’s goats starved as they swarmed like locusts over the New World back in the 1520s, and to marvel at the way the locals transformed that tragedy into a dish that has become Mexico’s pride.

This is Monday. For sure, I’ll be back for the birria, TJ-style.

The Place: Birria Madrigal, at Thorn Brewing 1745 National Avenue, Barrio Logan, 619-255-9679

Prices: Tacos, $2.75; taco combo, 3 plus soup for $10; queso taco, $4.50; Taco Cholo, $8; quesabirria, $8, $13; birria fries, $15.75; birria chips, $17

Buses: 12, 901, 929

Nearest bus stops: Logan and Beardsley (12); National Avenue and Beardsley (901); Sigsbee Street and Newton (929)

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