Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.
For the first 18 months that Santo Tacos was in business, most customers never noticed the birria option on the menu. They were more interested in having carne asada (grilled steak), al pastor (marinated pork) or pescado (fish) in a corn tortilla.
But in 2020, the tender, stewed beef, crisped on a hot grill and served with a side of red au jus, suddenly got everyone’s attention — blowing past those other proteins to become the top seller at the Salt Lake City taqueria.
“We love talking about the popularity of birria tacos,” said Alfonso Brito, co-owner along with his wife, Claudia. “It’s amazing how this happened.”
In restaurants and food trucks across the U.S. — and in Utah — birria is booming. In January, the food and dining website Eater dubbed it America’s hottest taco trend.
[Subscribe to our weekly Utah Eats newsletter.]
Owners can thank TikTok, Instagram and other social media sites, where plates of the drool-worthy dish are featured regularly in videos and photographs. Close-ups of melty cheese and tender beef have followers in a frenzy for this regional Mexican dish.
How is birria made?
Traditionally served as a stew, birria de res originated in the Mexican state of Jalisco, also home to tequila and mariachi music. Sometimes made with goat, but more often beef or pork, the meat is cooked at a low temperature for several hours along with dried chilies, tomatoes, spices and herbs.
The process creates a tender meat and a rich, flavorful consomme.
Two decades ago, — when a savvy cook in Tijuana used the tender meat to fill corn tortillas — the taco de birria was born.
For this Mexican version of a French dip, the corn tortillas are dipped in the red broth, stuffed with the shredded meat and white cheese (queso) and then placed on a hot grill until crispy. A cup of consomme is served alongside for dipping along with pickled onions and salsa.
Americans who crossed the border were introduced to birria and loved it. It didn’t take long before food trucks in Los Angeles and San Diego — and later Austin, Texas, and other communities with ties to Mexico — were serving it to hungry eaters in America.
“It has a very appealing flavor,” said Alfonso Brito of the braised meat. He described it as savory, with a bit of sweetness, smoky with a bit of spice.
Claudia Brito, who was born and raised in Jalisco, grew up eating and making birria. So when the couple were putting together the Santo Tacos menu, there was no question it would be included.
“In my experience it is appealing to everybody,” she said. “I don’t know anyone that says ‘I don’t like birria.’ ”
Their daughter also insisted that it be included, Alfonso added. “At the time, our daughter Sophia was 12. She loved it and said it had to be on the menu.”
An expanded birria menu also is available at the Brito’s new Logan restaurant, Santos Bar and Grill, which opened in March.
Birria goes beyond tacos
While tacos are the most popular use for birria, Alejandro Maya and his brother-in-law Christian Luna — co-owners at Salt Lake City’s Los Tapatios Taco Grill — also are using the marinated meat in quesadillas, burritos and stuffed mulitas.
“Birria is the only thing we have on the menu,” said Maya, adding that it confuses some customers. “They find it weird that we only have one meat.”
But it hasn’t kept the business from growing. In fact, it has exploded since first opening in March 2020. The restaurant had brisk takeout business during the early days of the pandemic, Maya said, and has grown steadily since health orders allowed it to reopen for sit-down dining.
Last summer, they launched a food truck to keep up with demand.
Maya said a year ago, the restaurant was serving about 40 pounds of birria a day. Today, the daily output is close to 400 pounds, and it’s not uncommon to run out before closing time.
The number of birria fans in Utah is “expanding really fast,” he said. “The dish was very popular in California and then it got promoted on social media with pictures explaining what it was.”
When customers make videos of the food and share them on TikTok, he added, “that gets the word out there, too.”
This winter, when Los Tapatios introduced its birria ramen soup, the restaurant’s popularity grew, Maya said, “and brought a lot more attention to birria.”
Jose Maya, Alejandro’s father whose family hails from Guadalajara, is the one who makes the birria each day, using three different types of dried chiles and myriad spices, from cumin and cinnamon to garlic.
The meat is marinated for 24 hours and then cooked for five to six hours to get the tender texture and the flavorful broth.
Despite all the different birria mashups — eateries in other states have even used it on pizza — the most popular menu item remains the crispy taco, Alejandro Maya said. “It’s the authenticity of the food that people really like.”
These restaurants have birria on the menu
There are many restaurants and food trucks that have added birria to their menus. Here’s a sampling of where to find it.
Cocina Familiar • Get queso birria tacos at this new family-owned restaurant inside the Azteca Indoor Mall, 3952 W. 3500 South, West Valley City, 801-600-1584, cocinafamiliarslc.com.
House of Corn • Chef/owner Armando Guerrero’s specialty is fresh-made corn tortillas. For his Wednesday special, he always fills them with birria and serves them with consomme. Located at 816 E. 9400 South, Sandy, 801-930-9286, houseofcornutah.com.
La Casa del Tamal • This family-owned business, voted one of the best restaurants in West Valley City, moved to a larger space in 2020, thanks to its birria tacos. It’s located at 2843 S. 5600 West, West Valley City; 385-266-8729, lacasadeltamalutah.com.
Los Tapatios Taco Grill • This restaurant and food truck opened in 2020, serving birria in tacos, quesadillas, burritos and ramen. Located at 120 N. 900 West, Salt Lake City; 801-364-1794, lostapatiostacogrill.com.
Mom’s OG Catering • The queso-birria lunch includes four tacos, consomme and fixings for $12. Order at 385-602-9176 or email email@example.com. Pickup at 3678 W. 2100 South, #3. Delivery is an additional $5.
Nino Viejo • Chef Marco Niccoli, who grew up in Los Angeles, has included a birria taco plate at this new Latin concept in the Station Park shopping district, 160 N. West Promontory, Farmington; 801-451-1967, ninoviejoutah.com.
Pancho’s Mexican Grill • Also called La Casa de La Birria, this restaurant has tacos, quesadillas, burritos and bowls of the traditional “birria de res,” or red stew served with homemade corn tortillas. Located at 250 W. 2100 South, Salt Lake City; 323-944-8819 or panchosmexicangrill1.com.
Puerto Vallarta Mexican Grill • Enjoy a plate of the red birria tacos or bowls of Jalisco’s signature sweet and spicy shredded beef stew, topped with chopped cilantro and onions and served with corn tortillas. The restaurant is at 4631 S. Redwood Road, Taylorsville; 385-425-3970 or puertovallartamexgrill.com.
Santo Tacos • The owners say this popular taqueria serves some 600 pounds of birria tacos every week. Located at 910 N. 900 West, Salt Lake City; 801-893-4000 or santotacos.com.
Santos Bar & Grill • This new Logan eatery — from the same owners as Santo Tacos — opened in March and has an expanded birria menu that includes tacos, burritos, quesadillas and soup. It’s located at 880 N. Main; 435-799-3701 or santosbarandgrill.com
Find birria at these food trucks
Birrieria Matador • This Vernal truck uses a family recipe to make the marinated and stewed beef used in tacos, burritos and soup. Located at 1175 E. Highway 40, Vernal; 435-219-1810 or birrieriamatador.com/.
The Border • Shopping at The Outlets in Park City? Look for this food truck that advertises “birria tacos Jalisco style.” Open every day except Tuesday at 6699 N. Landmark Drive, Park City; 435-799-6822 or facebook.com/theborderfoodtruck.
Los Tapatios • See Los Tapatios Grill above.
Red Tacos • Utah County’s favorite birria tacos can be found at this family-owned food truck parked at 235 S. Freedom Blvd., Provo; 801-362-2338 or facebook.com/Redtacos801. A sit-down restaurant is expected to open soon at University Place in Orem.
Toritos Tacos • Chef Brandon Cagle worked at The Rest and Pago before launching this food truck, which has become a Salt Lake County favorite. Call 801-696-5107 or visit toritostacos.com.