Learn how to make birria tacos at home and you’ll never go back to your usual naked tortilla.
A taco isn’t truly complete without a few accoutrements—a sprinkle of cilantro and diced onions along with a splash of salsa offer the perfect final touch. But while the focus tends to be on the toppings, when it comes to the red taco (a longtime Mexican favorite and recent sensation in the Los Angeles culinary scene) it’s the tortilla itself which takes center stage, dipped in a fiery oil bath and then fried for a flavorful and eye-popping finish.
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It Begins with Birria
The foundation to a red taco is birria, tender hunks of meat that have been braised in a fragrant broth. While birria can be served simply as a soup (you can even add ramen noodles to the mix), tortillas are commonly enlisted to transport all that goodness to your belly.
At popular Los Angeles food truck chain Pepe’s Red Tacos chef Joe “Pepe” Mercado prepares a scratch-made bone broth blended with 11 herbs and spices including a trio of chiles (anaheim, guajillo, and ancho) which give the liquid that signature crimson hue.
A native of Jalisco, the birthplace of birria, Mercado learned the recipe from his mother who would prepare the dish for breakfast when it is traditionally served.
Like many red taco purveyors stateside, Pepe’s specializes in birria de res (beef) which Mercado acknowledges isn’t something you’ll typically find across the border. “If you go to Mexico and ask for birria, you’ll get served goat [chivo]” he says. When you use beef, it’s called barbacoa. Here in the States, it got confused and people just called both birria.”
Mercado’s cut of choice is lean and tender chuck roll which is simmered in the broth for several hours. “We cook it to where all of the fat has broken away from the meat,” he says.
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An Overnight Sensation
Ready to eat? Not so fast! If you want to take the red taco route (which, of course you do) a little more patience is in order. Be sure to make room in the fridge because your birria’s gonna need a few more hours to chill out. This is done in order to allow the fatty oils from the broth to rise to the top and solidify.
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“We filter that fat and we’re left with all of the pure oil of the meat and all of the flavors that it cooked in,” says Mercado. “That’s what we dip our tortillas in. Some people think you just dip it into the broth. If you just dip it into the broth and grill it, the tortillas will fall apart because of all of the liquid and water.”
The Red Dipping
Now it’s finally time to take the plunge. Corn tortillas are the standard (but flour works too) and Mercado prefers to double up to ensure a sturdy foundation for your tacos. Grab a pair and, holding them together, give them a dip in the oil. After they’ve soaked up that flavor-packed red gold, toss the tortillas on a hot skillet, around 30 seconds on each side until they’re slightly crisp but still pliable. (If you want to add cheese, now’s the time to do it.)
Pile on that meat and all the fixins’ and serve with a side of broth because why let a single drop of that precious liquid go to waste? Sip straight up or take a cue from Mercado and submerge your taco in the broth French dip style. “That’s traditionally how we in Jalisco eat it.”
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A Shortcut to Preparing Birria at Home
If you want to recreate the magic of Pepe’s Red Tacos at home, Mercado now sells jars of just-add-water (plus meat and garlic) birria paste, the same base that he uses to prepare his broth.
Birria Paste, $6.99 from Pepe's Red Tacos
Below you’ll find instructions for preparing red tacos using Pepe’s Red Tacos Birria Paste.
Pepe's Birria Tacos
- 1 jar (8 oz) Pepe’s Birria paste
- 4 lb chuck roll (Diezmillo), cut into 2 inch squares
- 4 quarts of water
- 4 garlic cloves
- Corn tortillas
- Put all ingredients into a pot and bring to a boil.
- Cover and simmer for 4 hours on stove (add salt to taste during the last hour).
- Transfer pot to the refrigerator and let cool overnight.
- Remove from refrigerator and skim fat with a spoon and reserve.
- When ready to grill tortillas, melt fat in a skillet and pour into a bowl.
- Dip 2 corn tortillas (without separating them) in the oil.
- Heat dipped tortillas in a skillet or pan for approximately 30 seconds on each side.
- Remove tortillas from pan or griddle, add meat and fixings.
If you want to start from scratch, try this Birria Tacos recipe.
Header image courtesy of Pepe's Red Tacos