Three months ago, chances are you had not yet heard of birria tacos. Now this specialty from the Mexican state of Jalisco has taken Oahu by firestorm. It crept up the West Coast last year and while still new to our shores, it's suddenly everywhere — including at Pearlridge, where La Birria Tacos, a new food truck from chef Arturo Silva and business partner Justin Mizufuka, opens at 11 a.m. this Saturday, Oct. 17.
Birria is a cultural icon of Jalisco, where it's as prominent as tequila and mariachi bands. Meat is braised in a broth of roasted and ground chile peppers, tomatoes, onion and whole spices until it is melting off the bone. Traditionally goat is used, but beef and lamb have grown in popularity due to their availability outside of Mexico. There are many conflicting origin stories of birria. Still, one thing is certain: It was created to make goat meat, which is often tough and gamey, delicious. It also does the same to beef.
See also: We found birria tacos in Kalihi
Each birrieria prepares its blend of chiles and spices; the braising stock, known as the consomme, is reduced and becomes the flavoring agent. Typically served in a bowl, like Jalisco's other famous stews, menudo and pozole, birria is often accompanied by fresh corn tortillas for dipping. I think you can see where this is going.
Mizufuka and Mexico City-born Silva have known each other since one helped launch Buho Cocina y Cantina in Waikiki and the other became its opening chef. They invited me for an early taste at the yellow La Birria Tacos truck, parked near the Leonard Jr's malassada truck at the Diamond Head end of the Sears parking lot on Pali Momi Street and Kamehameha Highway.
The menu is simple, with beef birria the focal point. Mizufuka idolizes restaurants like In-n-Out Burger that focus on one or two solid offerings and become iconic for them. So the first item on La Birria's menu is the birria queso pack ($12) with three tacos and consomme. A 12-pack ($45) is available, too.
Silva plunges 4-inch corn tortillas into a pan of crimson oil; they hit the plancha with a sizzle. Mozzarella cheese, shredded braised beef, onion and cilantro are sprinkled on top before they're folded and pressed flat. In Mexico, these would be tacos dorados, or crispy tacos, because of the hardened exterior they gain from meeting the hot, oiled plancha.
Dipping the taco into the small cup of consomme adds a juiciness and deeper flavor dimension. If you need a pairing, the pineapple agua fresca ($4), which is simply pineapple blended with water and sugar, cuts nicely through the fatty, spiced beef and cheese.
Before you know it, you whack the whole plate. Be warned: Bring a roll of paper towels or a bib if you plan to eat in the car.
Gluttons for punishment and spice will gravitate to the Hell Fire tacos ($12 for two, $55 for 12). They don't look menacing, but the two birria tacos on this plate receive a little more beef and a generous lashing of Silva's spice blend.
The heat builds slowly, so you might not notice it until you take a breath. Also on the plate are Silva's pickled jalapenos and onions, which he prepares weekly. Their acidity and low heat help balance out the slow burn, while the horchata ($4) extinguishes any flames. It's smooth and creamy, with no huge specks of cinnamon clouding the top — I'm a fan.
By my second bite, my face has flashed 50 shades of red and sweat is beading under my eyes. I fear the heartburn that will haunt me in a few hours, but the flavor is truly unique. Ask me later if it was worth it.
Mizufuka, who grew up on Maui and misses Sam Sato's saimin, had the idea to add noodles to the leftover consomme broth. He and Silva tried out options ranging from thick Okinawa soba to thin ramen before they settled on Sun Noodles' original medium-weight curly saimin for the birria saimin ($12 or $5 as a side). It comes with chunks of braised beef, fried tortilla strips, onion and cilantro. A squeeze of lime brightens it up and I end up devouring half the bowl before realizing I'm so full.
To celebrate the opening this Saturday, Mizufuka is planning a social media promotion where customers will tag their friends to share their "birria bites" on Instagram. The best bites will be chosen each week and winners will receive a meal and drink of their choice. Details will be posted on La Birria's Instagram.
La Birria Tacos
98-1005 Moanalua Rd.
Daily 11 a.m.-6 p.m.