After a year of rent crises and restaurant closings, Alfredo Torres has just these words to say: “Thank God for birria.” Torres is the most recent owner of La Flor de Izucar Café, a restaurant in Sunset Park that he took over from his parents last April. His mother and father opened La Flor in the 1990s, at a time when gorditas, enchiladas, and combination plates with a side of rice were the stars of Mexican-American cooking. Three decades later, the restaurant’s menu had not changed much, Torres says, even though the Mexican dishes that customers sought out had. An update was in order.
Around the time that Torres returned to the restaurant, he started to notice tacos de birria gaining popularity on social media: videos of tacos half-submerged in cups of consomme, cheese pulls captured with an iPhone flash, and aluminum takeout tray upon aluminum takeout tray of gleaming red tortillas. Photos of tacos de birria were “suddenly everywhere,” according to Torres, and he wasn’t the only one to notice.
“We started making birria because people started asking for it,” he says. Neither Torres, who grew up above his family’s restaurant, nor his parents, who emigrated to the United States from Puebla, grew up eating birria de res, but demand for the dish prompted the family to create their own recipe using short ribs. Torres added tacos de birria to La Flor de Izucar’s menu in October and, practically overnight, the restaurant’s number of third-party delivery orders doubled — and then tripled.
In Mexican restaurants across the city, the story is the same: We started making birria because people started asking for it. Beginning in August 2019 with the opening of the Birria-Landia taco truck in Jackson Heights, no single Mexican dish has been as sought out as tacos de birria, the beef-filled, brick-red tortillas of internet acclaim. Food businesses have closed in record numbers during the pandemic, but food trucks slinging tacos de birria continue to multiply.
Birria is said to have originated in the western Mexican state of Jalisco, where it’s more commonly served as a stew made with goat or beef, but its red taco sibling arose several hundred miles north, in Tijuana. In that northern Mexico border city, taqueros began serving the dish as a taco by dipping their tortillas in beef fat, throwing them on the grill until crunchy, and stuffing them to the brim with slow-cooked beef and sometimes cheese. The preparation took off, first in Los Angeles and San Diego across the U.S.-Mexico border and then in neighboring cities like San Francisco and Austin.
Better late than never, the so-called “red wave” has found its way to the five boroughs with help from friends and family in Tijuana and Los Angelenos on TikTok. For many New Yorkers, including many Mexican and Mexican-American restaurant owners, the fast rise of birria came out of nowhere. Others saw it coming for years.
“There is nothing new about this phenomenon,” says Gustavo Arellano, a Mexican food expert and author of Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America. “Every single decade, there seems to be this new — quote unquote, lowercase — ‘new’ Mexican dish that spreads like a wildfire.” Birria, in all its gleaming red glory, is simply heir to the throne.
Birria means something different to everyone — more on that in a moment — but ask a New York City taquero about their first taste of the dish, and there’s a good chance they’ll point you in the direction of Birria-Landia. Even if they can’t remember its name. “I first tried it at this taco truck called… called…” Torres pauses. “This taco truck in Queens, which took like an hour and a half of waiting.”
Operated by José Moreno, a former chef at Eataly and the one-Michelin-starred Del Posto, Birria-Landia is as well known for its tacos as it is for its lines. People wait in hourlong queues and 30-degree weather to get a taste of Moreno’s tacos, mulitas, and tostadas, which are largely credited with putting Tijuana-style birria on the map in New York.
It wasn’t always that way. Moreno, a native of Puebla, opened the first location of Birria-Landia with his brother Jesús in the summer of 2019. Things started off slow, but a few months after opening along Roosevelt Avenue, the duo received a rare two-star review from New York Times critic Pete Wells that “changed everything,” Moreno says. Not just for him, his brother, and his staff — who now had to cater the sort of unending lines Torres encountered in Jackson Heights — but for Mexicanos across New York City.
“When I started selling birria, people in my garage couldn’t believe it,” Moreno says of the venue where he parks his food trucks. “How could you make money selling a type of meat that no one knew?” Roughly two years and two stars from the Times later, many of those same taqueros have since hung handwritten “birria tacos” signs in the windows of their trucks or transformed their businesses entirely to focus on the dish.
By the time Moreno opened Birria-Landia in 2019, Tijuana-style birria de res had already been on the West Coast for years. Red tacos found an early home in cities like San Diego and Los Angeles with help from their proximity to the U.S.-Mexico border, but getting to New York City took longer. In part, that’s because there are fewer Mexican chefs on this coast who grew up eating and making birria de res.
At the peak of Mexican migration to New York — between 1980 and 2000 — the bulk of immigrants came to the city from Puebla, a central Mexican state known for its tacos placeros and mole poblano, but not for its birria.
Birria is not common in Puebla, with one important exception: a small town in the middle of the state called Coatzingo. It’s the birthplace of the taqueros who would go on to create Tijuana-style birria de res, and it’s also where Moreno grew up.
He remembers eating his first bowl of birria de res, a stew made from goat and served with tortillas on the side, as a teenager. “I had never tasted anything like it,” he recalls. But it wasn’t until Moreno visited Los Angeles years later that he was introduced to birria’s Tijuana-style cousin.
As the story goes, Moreno was sent to California in 2018 to help open a location of Eataly in Los Angeles. He arrived in the city at the peak of its birria taco boom, a time when food trucks slinging the crunchy red tacos of nearby Tijuana seemed to be opening on a weekly basis. Moreno made several trips across the border to visit the birrierias of Tijuana, many of which were owned by taqueros from his hometown. When he returned to New York the following year, he brought those recipes back with him.
That part of the story is known. The rest is slightly more complicated. On the road from Tijuana to Los Angeles and — eventually — to New York City, birria de res took an unlikely turn, landing on the For You pages of millions of users on TikTok.
The first documented use of the #birria hashtag on TikTok was in 2018, a year after the social media platform’s United States debut. The hashtag received a little more than 1,000 “video views” in its first year of use. (Video views are calculated as the number of times videos with the #birria hashtag are watched, according to a TikTok spokesperson.)
By the end of the following year, the number of views tied to the hashtag had ballooned from a little over 1,000 views to more than 3.2 million. Between 2019 and 2020, the number of video views for #birria increased by close to 8,900 percent, an almost incomprehensible jump that translates to 284 million views. In the first two months of 2021 alone, the hashtag has already received more than 148 million video views.
TikTok as a social media platform has undoubtedly grown over the same period, from some 271 million monthly active users in December 2018 to an estimated 1 billion in 2021. Charted month over month, that rise resembles a steep hill. Birria, on the other hand, is a line straight to the moon.
That hype is changing how Mexican restaurateurs open and operate food businesses in New York City. In the Columbia University stretch of Harlem, Gabriel Apreza runs El Toro Rojo, a taco truck he opened with his son David in December 2016. Apreza grew up eating birria made with beef and lamb in Costa Chica, a town in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero, but he had never tasted Tijuana-style tacos until visiting Birria-Landia. He started selling his own birria shortly after the start of the pandemic, a version made from brisket and sirloin.
“Birria did really well for us,” David Apreza says. “It picked up really fast.” On the first day, the truck received roughly 10 orders for its birria tacos. Then 20. Then 50. Bolstered by the sales, the Aprezas decided to go all in on birria, rebranding as Birria Del Toro Rojo in October. They still sell a handful of other meats, along with salsas and guacamoles, but their birria dishes are the menu’s rising stars.
Others, like Andres Tonatiuh Galindo Maria, owner of Nene’s Taqueria Deli in Bushwick and a former chef at the two-Michelin-starred Jean-Georges, are taking their cues straight from Angelenos on social media. His menu includes several viral dishes from TikTok, including birria ramen — essentially, a bowl of Tapatío brand ramen that’s filled with consomme and chunks of birria — and birria pizza.
“All of my concepts are from social media on the West Coast,” he says. “It’s popping out there. I decided to bring it out here.” Galindo Maria visited Birria-Landia after reading the Times review in November 2019. It was his first time eating birria, and the only time he’s eaten it at a New York City business to date. Nonetheless, he opened Nene’s, a small birrieria based out of a cellphone repair shop, less than a year later, in October 2020. (Nene’s has since relocated to a nearby bodega called Eric Mini Market.)
Birria-Landia is credited with putting birria on the map in New York City, but the dish has been in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens for more than a decade. You read that right.
Three blocks south of La Flor de Izucar in Sunset Park, Jesús Ramirez operates Tacos Los Poblanos, a late-night food truck that has been selling birria de res tacos since 2010. Advertised on its menu as “beef soup,” the truck’s birria is made by slow-cooking meat from “all of the leg and thigh,” he says through a translator.
Ramirez learned to make birria from his brother, who runs two birrierias in Baja California, one in Tecate and another in Tijuana. His tacos lack the characteristic crunch of Tijuana-style birria, but his tortillas are dipped in fat skimmed from the top of his consomme. Tacos Los Poblanos isn’t technically a birrieria — it’s better known for the 17 other types of meat on its menu — but Ramirez says the surge in demand for tacos de birria has helped business all the same. “For me, it’s great that it’s been exploding,” Ramirez says. “People are now ordering it more, which is great.”
From a storefront a few doors down from Birria-Landia, Rufino Zapata has been serving birria de res for the better part of two decades. He learned to make birria from a friend in Tijuana, long before demand for red tacos started to pick up in New York City. His restaurant, Taqueria Coatzingo, serves the dish as a taco and as a stew with a side of tortillas.
Zapata’s birria is not strictly Tijuana style: Although he slow-simmers his beef in a mixture of guajillo and chipotle chiles, that broth never finds its way to his tortillas, which are the same for any other taco. Still, Taqueria Coatzingo was among the first restaurants to serve birria in taco form along Roosevelt Avenue, a busy roadway where “every Mexican restaurant is now serving” the dish, says Beatris Zapata, a sous chef at the restaurant and Rufino’s daughter.
When Taqueria Coatzingo opened in 2001, only two or three other restaurants in the area were serving birria de res, she says. Moreno, whose original Birria-Landia taco truck opened two blocks from the restaurant, is more confident: “Taqueria Coatzingo was the first to do it,” he says.
Birria de res, in other words, is not “new.” Not the dish. Not the people making it. Not even the style of taco’s fast rise to the top. In fact, Mexicans who have been living in New York long enough will tell you that the story of birria has been told before. “Vivimos en el momento de la birria,” says Melitón Zapata, manager at Taqueria Coatzingo in Jackson Heights. We live in the moment of birria.
Every decade or so, a “new” Mexican dish occupies the attention span of New York City, which has room for just one taco at a time. The farther one is from the source, the more they have to squint to see what’s there. Details are lost, and though not all birria in New York City is created equal, most of it is served between two crunchy red tortillas.
Taqueria Coatzingo has been there through it all. The restaurant’s more than 100-line menu has given the Zapatas an umbrella view of Mexican food trends over the last two decades. “Around 2005, mole poblano became very popular,” says Melitón Zapata, as translated by his niece Rosa, an assistant manager at the restaurant. “A couple of years ago the most popular order was three al pastor taquitos.”
Tijuana-style birria is the latest dish to surge to popularity at the restaurant, and it certainly won’t be the last. When asked about the rise of tacos de birria, the Zapata sisters instead debate which item on their menu will become “the next trend.” Rosa voted lengua, for the record, while Beatris argued that barbacoa, a slow-cooked sibling of birria de res, is next in line.
Sometimes the reason is taste, and sometimes — for Moreno, who still prefers carne asada — it’s TikTok.
Eater project manager Patty Diez contributed reporting and translation to this story.