Once upon a time, birria was a dish that, outside of its native Mexico, didn’t carry much recognition.
A humble stew of meat braised in a thick broth fortified with red chiles, birria has deep roots in the Mexican state of Jalisco. It arose as a result of Spanish colonists in the 16th century struggling to deal with an overpopulation of goats; the simplest solution was to give away the animals, which were less desirable to the conquistadors, to the indigenous community around them.
Since those early days, birria has undergone several evolutions, notably with a beef version taking root in places like the state of Zacatecas (the debate between the regional specialities rages on today, naturally). More recently, it became a hallmark in Tijuana’s food scene, where it was adapted into a griddle-fried, cheesy iteration known as a quesabirria. And as long as I can remember, there have been excellent birrierias in Southern California, serving up big plates of meat and broth to big crowds on weekends.
But somehow, in the last few years, birria has exploded across America as one of the trendiest dishes in the zeitgeist. It’s not an overstatement: A new survey found that birria is the fifth-most popular food globally across TikTok and Instagram. Clicking on the “birria” hashtag on either app drops you into a world of endless red-tinted beef, with people of all backgrounds sharing giddy recipes, reactions and tips.
No wonder that birria joints are opening up all over America, and as far as Hawaii, Australia, South Korea and Paris — locales not exactly known for much of a Mexican diaspora or great Mexican food. We’re amid a historic birria bull rush, and beyond tacos and quesabirrias, content creators apparently can’t help but put this braised beef in everything: Birria ramen, birria dumplings, birria pizza, the list goes on.
The whole thing feels kind of like a foodie bubble that’s going to burst, and like all fast-growing trends, the popularity can cut both ways, says Javier Cabral, editor of L.A.-based news and culture site L.A. Taco and a professional taco scout. On one hand, birria is objectively delicious: There’s nothing like the flavor of tender meat and hot consommé, all stained with earthy chili and sprinkled with a fistful of chopped onion and cilantro. But it’s also supposed to be a quasi-ceremonial dish, best when prepared by a specialist, Cabral tells me — and instead, lesser versions are cropping up everywhere due to demand and social media algorithms.
“Birria is a love-hate taco for me because on one hand, I get the trend, including from the perspective of the taquero. Real talk, it’s a cost-effective beef dish, and everyone wants it now. They can charge a buck or two more for a birria taco and have higher margins than grilling a steak cut,” Cabral says. “But as a consumer, I have to say, the trend’s contributed to the watering down of birria. Quite literally, to stretch out the broth.”
It’s a similar sentiment shared by Matt Kang, editor of Eater LA. “I’m amazed by its popularity, but not quite tired of it yet,” Kang says. “Once Taco Bell and Del Taco serve it, we’ll know it’s jumped the shark. But I welcome quality birria de res everywhere from airport-adjacent food trucks to sports venues. It should be everywhere.”
Indeed, odds are high that birria ends up on a fast-food menu, or at the very least a Chipotle, any day now — but it may not be the downside that it appears. Cabral tells me that he was surprised to hear recently that birria is on the menu at Universal Studios and Disneyland. “Maybe that’s a good thing,” he continues. “If the average person who only orders steak at the taco stand is now asking for birria, and it’s become so mainstream it’s at a theme park, that’s fair.”
There is some small irony in the fact that birria was always here, ready to be appreciated by the masses, but only gained clout because of luck and repetitive posts online. The sight of a quesabirria, golden and crisp with cheese, being dunked into a small styrofoam cup of broth is, by now, practically a meme. Even Lizzo is out here pouring consommé on tacos and doing trending TikTok dances while chewing on birria.
A side effect of all this excitement is going to be shitty, carelessly made birria — but perhaps that’s the most flattering sign of all that it’s nearing rarified air in the pantheon of American food trends. I can only imagine that the original pioneers of pizza and hamburgers felt an existential twinge of horror while watching their beloved foods blow up, get mainstream and lose integrity.
Perhaps we’re entering the early stages of a new epoch of great and accessible birria, as this Mexican speciality grows its legend across borders, one like at a time online. But if there’s any great shame, it’s that birria de chivo, or the original version made with goat, is being left by the wayside for its more beef-centric cousin. Cabral and Kang agree with me that the flavor and texture of goat is superior, despite it being a lesser-known type of meat in America.
Consider it the counterculture version of a booming food trend that shows no signs of slowing down. When it comes to food porn, birria is still vying for king status, one slow-mo taco dip at a time.