Puerto Vallarta: Searching for Birria

¿Dónde está la mejor birria de la ciudad?

Puerto Vallarta: Searching for Birria

The little girl was clearly confused. And curious. Attempting to sort through her own internal monologue questioning why I was there, she kept coming to our table to ask if we needed anything - another taco? Well, sure, yes, thank you.

I don't mind the cold. Usually around this time of the year, while most northern hemisphere dwelling folk beg for sunlight, I relish the dark, wet climates. I imagine it has something to do with my contrarian instinct and moody interior.

But this year was different. Has it been a particularly grey or cold winter? Or maybe I’m still not used to being stationary after months on the road? Whatever it was, around mid-January I started craving warmer climates. Sun? Beaches? Tacos, even? Yes, yes, please. Fortunately, a trip to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, was in sight.

But being the person I am, this wasn’t a trip for lounging poolside, swilling on a drink with an umbrella in it. Hey, I’m not judging, but too much of that makes me want to hold my breath underwater for one too many minutes. Plus, my mayonnaise complexion doesn’t quite lend itself to prolonged UV exposure.

Instead, I spent my time in Puerto Vallarta away from the beaches, exploring the city and mountains, searching for two things: birria and raicilla.

¿Dónde está la mejor birria de la ciudad?

Those words shuffled through my mind during my ten days in Puerto Vallarta. My Spanish is dangerous enough to sound confident and proficient with a hint of complete moron, all in the same sentence. But you gotta practice, right? So I asked anyone who would listen - mostly cab drivers who were forced to entertain and humor my broken Spanish. But that’s what I was looking for, what anyone should be looking for when they come to Jalisco.

When the Spanish brought (forcibly imported?) goats to what is now modern-day Mexico, they began to damage the agriculture and land. One solution was to eat them. To tenderize the notoriously tough and gamey meat, the goat was covered in spices and chiles and then slow-cooked for many hours. The result was birria de chivo, traditionally served as a stew with tortillas, onion, cilantro, and lime - assemble and enjoy.

As I understand it, birria isn't a set of ingredients but more of a preparation method that varies by region. Its vague definition is its beauty, with no uniformity, but varying recipes and riffs all derived from necessity. Each family has its secret blend of spices and chiles passed down through generations. I have no doubt that the best birria can only be found in the confines of someone’s house.

You might be familiar with the cousin of birria, quesabirria, a fried tortilla with cheese and stewed meat served with consomé for dipping. It gained popularity on social media for its gooey, drippiness that makes for quality food porn. It’s also damn good.

However, that birria incarnation is relatively new. Supposedly, the quesabirria boom started a few years ago with taqueros in Tijuana serving birria de res (beef) as tacos, not as a stew:

Bill Esparza, a Los Angeles-based food writer and Eater contributor, explains that you can trace the origins of what LA taco enthusiasts are now calling “quesabirria,” or sometimes “quesatacos,” back to Tijuana, where about 10 years ago he started seeing birria served on a taco instead of just as a soup; a truck there called Tacos Aaron was one of the first places where he saw it.

I don’t doubt the origin story, but I bet a crunchy birria taco has existed for a while.

But for what it’s worth, whenever I asked around for quesabirria in Puerto Vallarta, I’d usually get a blank stare, or they’d think I was mispronouncing quesadilla. Either way, this confirms the recency of the quesabirria phenomenon.

Birria Villaseñor, a small restaurant in the Pitillal neighborhood, was busy on a Sunday afternoon. The narrow interior has brick walls on either side, one red and one yellow, with red plastic tables and chairs throughout. The place smelled of chiles and charred meat.

The little girl walked back toward the kitchen and relayed our order to her mom (or parental figure), who responded with a slight nod and subtle smile. As she turned, a large group of nicely garbed people, some carrying Bibles, walked in and sat at the back near the kitchen. It wasn’t their first time; it was their Sunday routine.

I was in for something special. All the signs told me this was going to be good, I didn’t even have to taste it to know. But those same signs also made me very aware that I was an interloper - a status I’ve settled into over the years that both comforts and disturbs me.

A few minutes later, the little girl brings back a steamy bowl of birria. The signs were right, it was delicious.

One trouble with finding birria in Puerto Vallarta is that it’s traditionally a morning or lunch food, often reserved for big events or celebrations. You can find it at food trucks or small restaurants around the city, but they usually close before 3 p.m. After that, good luck finding it.

I tried several birria spots in Puerto Vallarta and a few outside. If you’re looking for classic birria, I’d recommend Birriería Tío Toños in the Versalles neighborhood. Ask for the tatemada, a crispy, charred chunk of goat meat placed on top of the stew.

If you’re looking for crunchy, gooey quesabirria, I recommend Birrieria Isordia. It’s next to a big multi-use park in the Versalles neighborhood, among a few small restaurants, great for a casual lunch.

Pictures from Puerto Vallarta


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Thanks for reading, friends.