Underground pit cooking is one of the treasured practices of pre-Hispanic Mexico. Today, that tradition still exists in barbacoa (mostly lamb), in cochinita pibil (Yucatan pork), in the mezcales of Mexico, in modern kitchens where chefs employ Mexican techniques, and in Central-Mexican birrierias (mutton and lamb). The state of Jalisco (where the largest Mexican migrant groups in L.A. come from) is the recognized originator of pit-roasted goat birria, and no visit to the birthplace of tequila is complete without a hot bowl of birria de chivo served with a stack of corn tortillas.
Birria is the name given to the preparation: A messy adobo rub of dried chiles, spices, and vegetables like tomatoes and onions are rubbed on the goat or lamb that’s traditionally wrapped in maguey spines and cooked underground over a stock pot to catch the drippings for the sauce. Today, birria is mostly prepared in ovens or jury-rigged pots, both in Mexico and stateside. In most Central States like Jalisco, Zacatecas, and Aguascalientes, goat (mutton) and lamb are used; states like Michoacan mostly serve it as a soup, but birria can be made with any protein as a stew (guisado).
It can be served dry, wet with sauce, or with consommé on the side; as a plate, in a cup, as a taco, or as a soup, and always with a potent salsa, often chile de arbol, for those looking to sweat away their cruda, or hangover. Machitos? These finely wrapped goat or lamb intestines are a delicacy in Mexico that unfortunately violate L.A.’s health code, so, you’ll only get them under the table here.
The regional differences are found in the chiles used in the adobo, the protein of choice, and the condiments: In La Barca, Jalisco, the birria sauce has lots of tomatoes and comes with cilantro, onions, and sliced radishes; in the state of Aguascalientes, dried oregano stands in for cilantro. But there’s only one place in the world you can try them all in one day, and that’s here in L.A. where you can have birria from Jalisco, Zacatecas, Aguascalientes, Michoacan, and even a few other states.
Here are five great versions of birria’s many expressions including two new under-the-radar gems. There are only four addresses below because one is in a house and, well, you know.
- Martin Cruz slowly cooks a huge stockpot of fragrant birria, loaded with close to 10 herbs and spices, hinting of cinnamon, chiles, and cumin, served as a burgundy-hued soup full of the buttery effervescence of flavorful goat. Birrieria Apatzingan (Apatzingan, Michoacan), 10040 Laurel Canyon Blvd., Pacoima, 818-890-6265; Birrieria Apatzingan #2, 16903 Saticoy St., Van Nuys, 818-785-8926
- The Landeros family have been doing birria for 45 years. Their original branch–Primos Landeros–can be found at the Mercado de Calvillo. In La Puente, the job is handled by Norberto Landeros, who makes the Aguascalientes-style birria that comes as a soup with a broth dominated by cooked tomatoes and finished with chopped onions, dried oregano, and the fiery house salsa. Birrieria Calvillo, Aguascalientes (Calvillo, Aguascalientes), 12056 Valley Blvd., El Monte, 626-443-1942
- Jalisco-style birria dominates Mexican enclaves in L.A. on weekend mornings and afternoons with its murky, flavorful broth, and none is more popular than Boyle Heights’ busy Birrieria de Don Boni, formerly Birrieria Jalisco and renamed after the family patriarch who passed away in 2000. The star here is the chamorro, two whole tender fore shanks accompanied by consommé and all the fixings to make your own tacos. Birrieria de Don Boni (Guadalajara, Jalisco), 1845 E. 1st St., Boyle Heights, 323-262-4552
- Although there are other places in L.A. where you can try the birria of La Barca, Jalisco, it’s the dining room of a house just outside Downtown that has devastatingly delicious goat covered in a spicy tomato sauce, radishes, cilantro, onions, and hand-made tortillas. Like at other birrierias, the dish is best con hueso, or with bones. If you manage to find this place yourself, don’t miss your chance to take a couple shots of goat marrow.
- Another one of our legacy birrierias on this list, the Boyle Heights branch of an authentic birrieria from the Mercado in Nochistlan, Zacatecas, delivers the small-town experience of Mexico. The most austere practice of Javier Moreno’s birria puts the focus on the goat, with minimal condiments; you can get it dry here, but wet, with the birria sauce ladled over it, is the way to go. Birrieria Flor del Rio (Nochistlan, Zacatecas), 3201 E. 4th St., Boyle Heights, 323-268-0319