Editor's note: Nick Zukin owns a Mexican restaurant in Old Town called Mi Mero Mole, which does not serve birria. Despite his dedication to traditional Mexican cuisine, we don't usually let him write about other south-of-the-border restaurants. But for Mexican Meat Month, we let him loose.
"Birria" refers, with all vulgarity intended, to "a piece of shit." It's the junk you throw away or wish you could get rid of—that broken-down car, your Comcast internet service, perhaps even a head of state.
But, like so many other dishes around the world, sometimes the best food is made using ingredients people with more money refuse to eat—barbecue, burgers, pastrami, pho and feijoada all started as the leftovers with which the poor made do.
Birria is Western Mexico's barbecue, a humble dish that's now a source of regional pride in Jalisco and Michoacán. Because most of Oregon's Mexicans come from these western states, birria has been a local staple on taqueria and taco-truck menus for decades.
Any meat, from pork to beef to lamb to rabbit, can become birria. But goat, that scavenger ruminant that has been sustaining humans for over 10,000 years, is appropriately the meat most associated with the dish. You'll see it on menus in Portland as "chivo"—which means kid, or young goat—but beef is also common here.
Birria started as a form of barbacoa: pit-cooked meat, though a more heavily seasoned version marinated in chilies and spices. Now, it is typically roasted in an oven. Like barbacoa, birria creates its own broth, which is usually served as a soup with tortillas and condiments on the side. However, it's common as a taco filling or served on a plate with rice and beans, too.
In the past few months, I've visited more than 40 Mexican restaurants and trucks to find the best birria in the metro area.
BEST OF THE BEST
193rd Avenue and East Burnside Street, Gresham, 971-212-8021. Noon-11 pm Friday-Sunday.
This weekend-only taco truck in the parking lot behind a Gresham Mexican flea market serves some of Portland's best barbacoa and birria. Ownership changed hands in April 2016, but it is every bit as good as it ever was.
Amanecer offers beef birria and lamb barbacoa, with or without consomé, which can come with or without meat. The barbacoa is more lightly seasoned with only herbs and spices. The birria has chilies. Both consomés have chilies and are greasy in a good way. Tortillas are handmade, if a little thick. Tacos come with wonderfully caramelized grilled onions on the side, along with three excellent salsas.
Arguably either of the dishes falls in the gray area between barbacoa and birria. Whichever one you choose, you'll be eating at one of the best taco trucks in the Pacific Northwest.
11945 SW Pacific Highway, No. 104, 503-747-0864. 8 am-10 pm daily.
Siete Estrellas has sat in a run-down strip mall under the radar for years except to jonesing tacoholics in deep Southwest Portland. The dish most food nerds geek out over is the sauce-smothered torta ahogada, one of the few available in the metro area. But the off-menu, available-anytime birria is another Jalisco special that's probably even better.
The broth is lava-red but surprisingly balanced. It's rich and redolent with chilies, but not especially spicy. Tender chunks of beef hide under the surface. The portion is quite large. The soup comes with handmade tortillas and the best condiment platter in this survey: avocado, cilantro, lime, onion, oregano and toasted chile de árbol—the way they all should be.
STILL DAMN GOOD
3503 E 4th Plain Blvd., Vancouver, 360-695-1797. 11 am-10 pm daily.
I went through a lot of bowls of mediocre Clark County birria before stumbling into 4 Caminos. It's one of many Mexican restaurants along Vancouver's best street for tacos, 4th Plain Boulevard between I-5 and I-205. I had previously eaten decent mariscos at 4 Caminos, but I had never tried the birria.
Using goat in the soup provided a more profoundly meaty flavor than other versions that use beef. The flesh from various parts of the animal fell easily from the bone. The matron looked worried when she sat the plate of birria that looked nothing like chicken nuggets in front of a fat white guy, but I sucked those bones clean. She was pleased.
The broth has a light chilies flavor with lots of cinnamon and other sweet spices. Cilantro, lime and onion come on the side. Sadly, the tortillas are commercial and do not do the dish justice. Better tortillas might have put 4 Caminos among the very best.
Javier's Taco Shop
121 N Lombard St., 503-286-3186. Open 24 hours daily.
Javier's was born from the same Southern California parentage as Muchas Gracias. You'll see a burrito of steak and potatoes on the menu, some variation of carne asada fries, and other hints at Javier's origin. But while Muchas Gracias seems to make its food worse and worse with each new location, Javier's vies with Milwaukie's Rigoberto's for best SoCal transplant in the area. Javier's birria might be good enough to give it the edge, especially since you can get it 24 hours a day.
The birria has a kick. Your nose will run. Your lips will tingle. It's spicy. And yet you won't stop eating it until it's gone. Javier's version is made with all parts of the goat. Rib and other cuts containing copious melted connective tissue give the soup body and heartiness. If Javier's offered good tortillas, this would be among the very best versions. (Note: The birria is a special, so call first.)
12000 SW Allen Blvd., Beaverton, 503-644-6270. 8 am-10 pm daily.
The intersection of Southwest Lombard Avenue and Allen Boulevard in Beaverton is a nexus of Latin American foods—Peruvian, Salvadoran and Mexican all in the same strip mall. El Perico has always seemed like more bar than restaurant, and with all the other tasty choices nearby, I've mostly bypassed it. But El Perico does have a non-bar side, where minors and families can feel comfortable eating. And the menu offers both barbacoa and birria. To my surprise, both were quite good.
The barbacoa de res is enjoyable, but the birria de chivo is clearly better. The two soups don't look that different. They're both a deep red with chunks of meat poking up like icebergs from the broth. But bone-in goat makes for a more luscious and flavorful soup than boneless beef. It's peppier, too, with more chilies and a strong aroma of clove. El Perico even offers handmade tortillas.
18727 E Burnside St., 503-661-5645. Call for hours.
If nothing else, the name of this taqueria gets straight to the point. But just because "Taco Salsa" sounds clumsy in English doesn't mean the cooks aren't graceful in the kitchen. Handmade tortillas, consistently well-made meats across the menu and one of the best salsa bars around suggest maybe Taco Salsa is just giving potential diners a heads-up to what it cares about.
The birria de chivo can be ordered as a plate with rice and beans or as individual tacos, but the classic soup is the best way to go. It's not one of the more robust broths, but the goat gives it a satisfying gaminess.
While you can't get a bowl of birria soup at these tiendas and taquerias, you can still get rico tacos to satisfy your carnivorous cravings.
6109 SW 124th Ave., Beaverton, 503-469-9161, lanortenamarket.com. 7 am-10 pm daily.
This great little Mexican market makes fresh tortillas and offers hot food to go. You can order birria de chivo and barbacoa de res from the deli counter by the pound or in tacos. Despite those dishes being arguably overseasoned with lots of cinnamon and other spices, La Norteña is still one of my restaurant staff's favorites.
Ochoa's Lupitas Tacos
4810 SW Western Ave., Beaverton, 503-841-4545, ochoaslupitastacos.wordpress.com. Noon-10 pm Monday-Tuesday and Thursday, 11 am-11 pm Friday-Saturday.
This fabled truck in the 'burbs offers both birria de chivo and barbacoa de res, each similarly seasoned with cinnamon, cumin and other spices. Ochoa's has great salsas, but industrial tortillas.
Tortilleria y Tienda de Leon
16223 NE Glisan Street, 503-255-4356, salsaslocas.com. 9 am-8 pm daily.
Guisados are available from the deli counter in tacos or by the pound. The rich and heavily spiced birria de res is available every day, and it's one of the restaurant's best guisados.