Quesabirria: The Delicious Mexican Food Trend with a Cult Following
If you want to find which places have the best quesabirria in the Bay Area, it’s towards the bottom of the article.
Back in 2019, if you were a San Francisco Bay Area resident who wanted to wrap your mouth around a quesabirria, you needed two important qualities. One was a willingness to travel – Very few places sold quesabirrias at the time, as it was considered a cult menu item. So O.G. quesabirria lovers happily traveled anywhere to a quesabirria spot, whether it was a taqueria in San Lorenzo or a pop-up at a Mexican swap meet in Antioch.
The other important quality was a willingness to wait. Standing in line for 45 minutes or even two hours was worth it just to sink one’s teeth into a messy but well-made quesabirria.
Now that quesabirria has become the Bay Area’s food craze du jour, the dynamics have changed. Travel to Sebastopol, Hayward, or even East Palo Alto and you’ll see just how widely quesabirrias have become available. The wait time has shrunk considerably at some outlets, which is probably a good thing given the unfortunate rise in way too many restaurant customers displaying obnoxiously entitled behavior.
Finally, variations on the quesabirria have arisen. There are Vampiritos, in which a crispy cheese shell takes the place of the tortilla. Or there are Birraquiles, which are tortilla chips smothered in birria and melted cheese while served with a consommé.
For those who want more information about the quesabirria, let’s start with the basics. Quesabirrias haven’t become common enough that Target stores sell them…yet.
What is Quesabirria?
Quesabirrias have also been called red tacos, thanks to the tortilla being dipped in its accompanying consommé. A more accurate description would call a quesabirria a mix between a taco and a quesadilla. It essentially consists of a crunchy tortilla, melted cheese, and stewed beef. But that’s sort of like saying “Spider-Man: No Way Home” is about a bunch of guys whose hands and feet can stick to walls.
What makes the quesabirria a favorite of the founder of this website and others in the know are the little extra details that go into cooking this dish. Some versions use two crispy tortillas. The cheese is usually mozzarella or Oaxaca. The meat is beef brisket stewed and marinated for up to 10 hours in a mix of chilies and spices. In addition, one can add chopped white onion and cilantro to the quesabirria. A consommé made from the juices of the sauce used to cook the beef does double duty as both a dipping sauce and a drinkable broth. Finally, these red tacos are served hot. As you might have gathered, quesabirria is not something for vegans or eaters who don’t like making a mess while eating. That said, at least La Santa Torta offers vegan red tacos, but YMMV.
In the SF Bay Area, Uzziel Rojas, owner of Los Originales Tacos de Birria in Antioch, is one of many people claiming local bragging rights for introducing quesabirria in 2019. For him, this concoction was a breakfast staple of his teen years. But whoever made the initial introduction, Instagram viral marketing (and a bit of talking up by S.F. Chronicle food critic Soleil Ho) really launched quesabirrias into Hot Must-Try Food territory.
Those who conclude from the above that the quesabirria is a recent SF Bay Area invention would be spectacularly mistaken. The roots of the quesabirria actually go back literally decades.
The History of Quesabirria
The starting point is a dish called birria de res. Originating from the Mexican state of Zacatecas, it was a beef soup usually served on celebratory occasions for years.
The first recorded version of what we call today the quesabirria dates to 2009. Eater food writer Bill Esparza noticed a Tijuana food truck called Tacos Aaron serving what might be called today the O.G. Quesabirria. That version put birria stew onto a taco. But the stew meat was the traditional one of goat. Other nearby food trucks put cheese on the tortilla before adding on the goat meat.
Tijuana taqueros would bring the idea of the quesabirria across the U.S.-Mexico border to Los Angeles. The key change they made was to switch out the taco’s meat from traditional birria to birria de res. The result: a cult food was born.
By 2016, Instagram promotion by taqueros and diners helped spread the quesabirria gospel throughout the City of Angels. All you needed for an Instagram post was information about a new vendor, photos of the finished product, and even video of the quesabirrias being made. Then *bang* you’ve got customer lines around the block. Teddy’s Red Tacos, for example, has mastered Instagram promotion to build a following of 100,000 people.
It’s also thanks to Instagram promotion that awareness of quesabirria eventually spread to the SF Bay Area. The area’s large Mexican and Mexican-American communities could pass the word about new quesabirria vendors and their wares farther and more safely than via flyers or word of mouth. Richmond’s El Garage got started this way. While the first Bay Area quesabirria vendors appeared at various points in the East Bay, providers have started popping up in San Francisco as well.
The Best Quesabirria in the Bay Area
What follows are names of some of the Bay Area’s more notable quesabirria purveyors. The wise reader will do a little research to ensure the place that interests them does not have a “Closed after we run out of quesabirrias” policy.
Cielito Lindo – Need an excuse to visit San Francisco’s Outer Richmond district? Try this restaurant with sky blue walls run by Jose Castillo and family. The youngest of the purveyors listed here produces quesabirrias said to be slightly bigger and with more spiced beef than those produced by other places in the City. Other items on the menu, particularly the tortas, are also worth checking out. Help make the Castillos’ restaurant a success. Opening the restaurant’s doors meant going into debt and suffering four years of city bureaucratic hassles.
El Fuego – This is a food truck, not a brick and mortar location. It announces its appearances around the City via Instagram. That said, one of its major parking spots is located at 17th Street & Carolina in the Portero Hill District. Consider trying their $13 “one of everything” deal. That consists of a quesabirria, a soft birria, and a birria mulita.
Tacos El Patron – The quesabirrias (aka queso birria tacos) at this restaurant are filled with meltingly tender beef. For best eating results, remember to ask for the cheese before the red taco is made and remember to dip the finished product into the accompanying consommé before each bite. Yes, two prior restaurants in the space now occupied by Tacos El Patron flamed out and died (as did a stew-focused spinoff launched by Tacos’ co-owner Alberto Pineda). However, the existence of an older sister Tacos El Patron in Pleasant Hill should quell any longevity concerns.
El Garage – This O.G. Bay Area quesabirria restaurant got its name from its first location: the driveway of the Montano family home. Ironically, the Montano family had never tasted a quesabirria before making their DIY version. Fortunately, Mother Susana Montano had a knack for making birria, and the family formulated a special double-dip method to give extra flavor to their quesabirria. It’s located in Richmond, but the current brick and mortar location is not that far from the Richmond BART station.
La Santa Torta – If the Orange Skull hadn’t screwed around with the DACA program, chef Leonel Oblea would not have been pushed into perfecting the family quesabirria recipe. The resulting complexly flavored quesabirria is a standout at this brick-and-mortar version of La Santa Torta’s popular Oakland food trucks. This red taco’s unique taste comes from a special mix of 10 different spices and a sheer broth. Don’t forget to make another visit to try the restaurant’s hoagie style torta or elote made from fresh corn and seasoned with Flaming Hot Cheetos (among other spices).
La Grana Fish – This O.G. East Bay quesabirria purveyor is a food truck now located in an adjacent lot next to the Aloha Club in Oakland’s Fruitvale District. It’s just a couple of blocks from the Fruitvale BART station. Ironically, owners Ana Morales and husband Alvaro Ramos didn’t realize how big a hit their quesabirrias would become. Other equally worthy items on the truck’s menu include Sinaloan-style gobernador tacos, which contain grilled shrimp and cheese, and the baked potatoes paired with jalapenos, cheese, and taco meats.
Aguachiles El Tamarindo – Another food truck located near Oakland’s Fruitvale BART station, this family-run operation specializes in seafood. But they’ve done well with the quesabirrias they recently added to the menu. The quesabirrias are said to be overflowing with its contents. On the other hand, you have to pay extra before you get the dipping sauce/consommé.
The above list should be considered a starter. If you want to try discovering a new place that sells quesabirrias, keep an eye on Instagram. Who knows? You might stumble onto a future El Garage.
CORRECTION: The Mexican substitute for mozzarella is actually cheese from Oaxaca, not Chihuahua. The post has been corrected to include this information.