I sometimes feel like an old man yelling at clouds when I consider why certain things are trending on Instagram. Some dances and memes make little to no sense to me—but when a food starts trending, with mouth-watering photos and an interesting back story, I get obsessed rather quickly.
Enter one of the last big Insta foods that grabbed my interest: Birria. Basically, birria is a savory Mexican stew with either beef, lamb or (originally) goat, often put into a taco shell and battered in cheese and more stew, or consommé. That taco version tastes like a campfire and a sunrise on a mountaintop had a tender meat baby and then grilled it in cheese and beef broth. That sounded better in my head.
- Photo by Jared Rasic
- The absolutely gorgeous presentation of the Quesabirria from Sopa.
Being that I am simultaneously obsessive and a completist, I went from one end of town to the other searching for Bend's tastiest birria. I think I found every place that served them, but I wouldn't be surprised if I missed one or two. I tried around 30 different birria-related dishes over two days and just want everyone to know that "Taco Belly" is a very real thing.
The main discovery I made from trying birria at six different locations is that there isn't possibly a way to decide which is best, because no two dishes tasted remotely the same. Every restaurant I tried had a completely different approach to birria and not a single one was bad. There were some that are going to make my constant rotation, but none of them actively made me tired of eating birria and birria-related snackies.
I tried Sopa, Manzanita Grill, Hablo Tacos, Tacos Pihuamo, Alebrije Oaxaca and El Taquero, and each of them had something completely different going on. For example, the dipping consommé that came from Hablo Tacos was incredibly complex in its spiciness. Five different layers of heat hit in waves and Chef de Cuisine Louis Chambrone gave me a little peek at the birria recipe.
"We use whole lamb leg and braise it with roasted vegetables, spices, herbs, beer and stock. Our broth is made by blending all the ingredients and straining them," Chambrone said.
The Quesa Birria Torta from Alebrije was on the most delicious and delicate bolillo roll I've tasted in Bend, with Chef Hugo Flores' authentic Oaxacan ancestral recipes astounding me across the board.
Co-owner Crystal Jimenez explains: "The birria being served is made just how Hugo was taught, from washing a tomato just the right way to grilling the ingredients and adding condiments, up until the cooking of the birria. The consommé comes straight out of the pot of the slow-cooked birria and is served Oaxacan style with garbanzo beans, onion cilantro mix and, to give it that special touch, the birria meat is added." That onion-cilantro mix gives Alebrije's Quesa Birria Torta a complicated and balanced spiciness unlike anything else I tasted.
Manzanita Grill always impresses with its consistently original takes on Southwest Fusion. The birria sandwich and tacos were dense and incredibly mouth-watering, with a thick smoky smell and flavor that was filling without being heavy. Chef and co-owner Joaquin Ortiz's consommé was light like an au jus with a perfect balance of seasoning and marinade.
"We try to be different," says Ortiz. "We don't want the same flavor as the other guys. One thing I do different is make sandwiches...it's kind of like a Mexican French dip with the consommé." Ortiz found the balance of flavors to make the birria feel like a genuine fusion of cultures and regions.
Tacos Pihuamo's birria tacos were light and complex, with an amazing conflagration of onions and cilantro. Honestly, I could have eaten two or three more tacos, and the birria meat melted in my mouth leaving about 10 different levels of aftertaste. The tenderness of the meat made the entire meal deceptively delicious. No frills here, just surgically flawless cooking.
From Sopa I ordered the Quesatacos and the Quesabirria, with the Quesabirria being a gorgeously plated quesadilla filled with thick hunks of birria that tasted fresh and smokey off of a barbecue, and the Quesatacos came with a consommé so thick and complicated I drank it from the cup after all the Birria was gone. Sopa always amazes, but its birria was the best thing I've ever tasted from them and, considering they have my favorite carnitas in town, that's saying something.
But the dish that made me make weird noises in public had to be the Ramen birria from El Taquero, served in a 32oz Chinese food container and filled with Asian ramen, consommé, birria, onions and cilantro. This is so savory and delicious that I'm already planning on when I can get it again. The thick, pulled chunks of birria meat combined with the simple and perfectly prepared ramen noodles is easily one of my new favorite local dishes, and if I can figure out a way to fill a bathtub with this, then it's on.
All of the birria dishes were so different and excellent in their own unique way that I found it hard to compare and contrast them against each other. The lesson I learned from doing this wasn't which place was better than the other; instead, I learned that Instagram was right and birria is amazing, but that also we're lucky to have so many incredible and varied recipes to choose from. It's a good problem to have.