How two Mexican-American birrieros made the beloved dish a sensation in America
In 2005, two Mexican-American teenagers from LA met at the fair in Coatzingo, Puebla, during Semana Santa, or Holy Week, a time when countless Mexican-American families head back to their family’s hometowns all over Mexico to visit relatives. The pair were partying, meeting girls, and dancing to banda, oblivious to the monied birrieros gambling and flashing rolls of cash at the annual event. But Teddy Vasquez and Omar Gonzalez, along with his brother, Oscar, would go on to change the direction of Mexican street food in America by making a dish from their small, Poblano community in Tijuana a sensation north of the border.
Coatzingo is one of many small towns near Izúcar de Matamoros. It’s where people from the surrounding area go for banking, the location of the only nearby hospital, and the birthplace of the taqueros that would create Tijuana-style birria de res, the breakout guisado that’s taking America by storm.
Birria is not popular in Puebla, certainly not in Coatzingo, but in the 1950s a taquero named Don Guadalupe Zárate moved to Tijuana from Coatzingo and opened a street stand to sell birria de chivo, a regional Mexican dish consisting of oven-roasted goat in adobo, alongside the preferred taco filling for locals, carne asada, and adobada (the regional name for al pastor). He soon switched to beef for a greater yield and profit, goat being so lean. Coatzingo legend has it that Zárate was told by someone to add more liquid so his birria wouldn’t burn, and he turned out the soup-style birria de res known today as Tijuana-style: a cut similar to beef brisket, and a generous portion of beef fat, slowly cooked for hours in an adobo, with enough water in the stock pot to make a rich stew. “If you mention his name to all the Poblanos in the birrierias, they’ll know who he is — he was the first one,” says taquero José Moreno of New York City’s Birria-Landia.
In 1968, Zárate had saved up enough to move his operation to the smoky taqueria row known as Las Ahumaderas, a late-night destination where young Tijuanenses like the chef Javier Plascencia would go for carne asada tacos after school events, quinceaneras, and dances in the 1980s. Birria de res was less fashionable for Tijuanenses during this period. “I didn’t eat birria until I was a teenager,” says Plascencia.
Plascencia recalls only a smattering of places selling it in the early ’80s, which is when Juan José Romero opened Tacos Aarón, a small wooden cart in Colonia El Soler that sold beef and goat birria. “Our grandfather is a Chilango [someone from Mexico City] who moved to Guadalajara, where he learned birria de chivo before coming to Tijuana, so I think our recipe is a mixture of all those places,” says Abraham Romero of Tacos Aarón.
By the mid-’80s, around the time Teddy Vaquez and Omar Gonzalez were born, birria de res was slowly gaining popularity among Tijuanenses, but was still not as in demand as the Tijuana styles of carne asada and adobada, also developed by Poblanos. And yet, the Mexican state with few traditions, better known for its seafood and innovative, pioneering chefs like Plascencia, Benito Molina, and Jair Téllez, was rigid about birria de res: All Tijuana stands served it the same way. Tacos de birria came with chopped white onions and cilantro topped with salsa de chile de árbol, or birria en caldo (soup). And you’d better be done by 1 p.m to make way for la comida (big meal of the day), because birria de res is breakfast in Tijuana.
Angelenos first discovered birria de res during trips to Tijuana, as did I around 2001, when the menu at Tacos Aarón featured tacos de birria, birria de caldo, and quesabirrias (birria and melted cheese in a tortilla), along with more than a dozen tacos varios (the regional name for tacos de guisado). “My father says that he doesn’t know if we were the first, but he doesn’t remember seeing [quesabirrias] anywhere else, and then they were everywhere,” says Abraham Romero. Soon, quesabirria and its more traditional sibling birria de res would be everywhere in Los Angeles, too.
In 2013, Ruben Ramirez approached his cousin Oscar Gonzalez and asked him to help him strike it rich selling some of that Poblano gold to LA’s Mexican community. Ramirez’s uncle, also from Coatzingo, had been selling birria de res for 40 years in Tijuana’s La Gloria neighborhood, and the two set up a birria stand in Oscar Gonzalez’s driveway in South Central. After Ramirez’s tourist visa was revoked for selling tacos at the birria stand without a work visa, Oscar Gonzalez’s brothers encouraged him to keep going. “Seeing all the taco stands in Tijuana be so successful, we thought, why not sell this to raza?” says Ivan Gonzalez, one of Oscar Gonzalez’s brothers. “At one point I took some tacos for my coworkers at Nordstrom to try the birria, and they loved them, especially the hot sauce. These were white, Asian, African-American, Armenian employees that told us they had something they’d never tried, and they loved it.”
A few of the brothers had worked for Nordstrom, and they applied the marketing skills they learned there to opening their first Birrieria Gonzalez truck in 2015. They parked it outside of a barbershop they’d recently purchased less than a mile from Gonzalez’s home in Historic South Central LA. “Oscar designed the logo, which has been copied by lots of the other trucks, and I did the wrap, the uniforms, and Ivan worked on the Instagram,” says Omar Gonzalez. “We thought that it’d be a hit if people ate birria while they waited to get their haircuts.”
In LA at the time, traditional birrierias were mostly weekend-only, family outings for breakfast, and Mexican-American crowds were used to ordering from large taco menus, but the ambitious brothers had bigger dreams. “We only had one carne, so we decided to do mulitas, quesabirrias (because people in LA really like cheese), and other items that they have at the TJ carne asada stands,” says Omar Gonzalez. The brothers applied the “Nordstrom principle” they’d come to cherish as employees of the corporate retailer, of customer service and visual display to give their clientele an experience they’d want to return for again and again.
While the first Birrieria Gonzalez truck was gaining popularity, an aimless, depressed Vasquez, who’d remained close with the Gonzalez family since they met at the Coatzingo fair a decade prior, headed to Tijuana for a new start. “I was looking for a way out. I had just broken up with my girlfriend, my [parcel] business wasn’t doing well, and I didn’t want to go back to Mexico, broke — it would be embarrassing,” Vasquez says. He got a job at Tijuana stand Birrieria El Paisa and turned out to be a fast learner, taking over the stand while the owner was in Puebla to attend to personal affairs.
By 2016, Vasquez was back in LA driving for Uber, saving up for cooking gear to make and sell birria de res out of his car. “I was broke, people looked down on me, but I was down for being positive, optimistic, energetic. Anybody that would listen to me [I’d ask to start] following my [Instagram] page. I started doing events. I did a lot of things in a short period of time,” says Vasquez, who opened Teddy’s Red Tacos in the fall of 2016, reinventing himself as a taco-slinging thought leader, beaming with Tony Robbins energy.
A young Mexican, Latino, and Latinx audience made Birrieria Gonzalez, Teddy’s Red Tacos, and fellow LA birria truck Tacos y Birria La Única Instagram stars. Ivan Gonzalez claims responsibility for posting an Instagram post on November 4, 2018, that made the world, or at least LA, want to dunk their tacos into steaming cups of red, greasy consomme. But whether or not Ivan Gonzalez’s photo was the first of its kind, in 2018, social media influencers began to highlight birria de res trucks, and along with the mobile fleet of social media-savvy birrieros, they flooded the internet with images of red tacos plunged into cups of crimson consomme. With post after birria-dunking post, LA’s Mexican food trucks won followers and customers, even as so-called gourmet food trucks closed or struggled to gain traction on Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok, where birra de res once again leads. Eventually, birria itself exploded in popularity well beyond LA.
Moreno opened New York City’s Birria-Landia in 2019. He researched the dish while working as a cook at Eataly in Los Angeles in 2018, the year that birria de res trucks were opening in LA on what seemed like a weekly basis. While in LA, Moreno frequented Teddy’s Red Tacos, Birrieria Gonzalez, Birrieria Villalobos, and crossed the border into Tijuana a handful of times, dining at Tijuana institutions like Taqueria El Franc, El Poblano, El Rio, El Paisano, and Los Poblanos, all owned by his countrymen from Coatzingo, Puebla. That same year, San Francisco’s El Garage began filling its plancha with red tacos oozing melted cheese while smothered in sizzling consomme, its own quesabirria spinoff, and Portland’s Birrieria PDX had long lines for birriamen, or instant ramen with birria, a dish created ten years ago by Mexican chef Antonio de Livier and served at his restaurant, Ánimo, in Mexico City, and one that has gained greater fame in the United States.
Director of partnerships and contributor to LA Taco Guillermo “Memo” Torres has been earnestly tracking the ascension of birria de res and created Birria-Mania, a birria event, for the taco lifestyle publication. “It really came to our attention in 2018, when [writer] César [Hernadez] wrote his [birria] guide, that it was a thing, and it has continued to evolve and develop — birria pizza, birriamen, birria egg rolls, and even birria pho,” said Torres. “People in the community like it because it’s orange, and red, and greasy, and it looks cool being dipped into the consomme — it’s Instagrammable.”
Of course, all these Mexican-American birria variations don’t sit well with Vasquez’s paisanos back in Tijuana.
“I use purple onion, no paper [to wrap the tacos], and I was getting phone calls from Tijuana, saying, ‘What the fuck, Teddy, you’re ruining the taco, that’s not how we do it.’ Cheese and all this stuff — they were mad at me, everybody was talking shit to me, telling me don’t be lazy, ‘You need to put the paper,’” says Vasquez.
And now LA birria culture is changing birria in Tijuana. “The dipping in the consomme — that’s a pocho and gringo thing,” said Plascencia, who has people at his own restaurant in Tijuana, Erizo Baja Fish House and Market, asking for a side of consomme from the stockpot for his fish birria taco so they can dip their various seafood tacos.
The stateside success of birria, a dish created by taqueros from Coatzingo and nearby Pueblan towns who then created a market for it in Tijuana, supported by many often-unnamed stands, is the product of the American dream, driven by the entrepreneurship of children of immigrants. There’s never been a better time to sell birria anything, with even the traditional goat birrierias that have been in LA for decades benefiting from America’s big red wave — Birrieria Nochistlán in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles has seen more business at its Zacatecas-style goat birrieria in recent years as interest in birria has risen, especially from non-Latinos who are hearing about birria for the first time.
“My friends have nice cars, nice houses, they have a good life,” says Moreno of the birria vendors he knows from Coatzingo who have set up shop in Tijuana and LA. “You don’t need to sell carnitas or a bunch of other things, because birria is enough.”
Bill Esparza is a James Beard Award-winning writer and author of LA Mexicano.