Like most Tampa residents, Stephanie Swanz first encountered quesabirria tacos on Instagram.
“I kept seeing these delicious tacos online and had to try some,” says Swanz, who owns Empamamas and the recently opened Muchachas at Armature Works. At the time, she was developing the taco-focused menu for Muchachas, and her team hit the test kitchen. “A crispy tortilla filled with birria, cheese, onion and cilantro pressed together and then dipped in consommé. … The moment I saw them, I knew I needed them, stat.”
These crispy, cheesy, beefy stuffed tacos have taken foodie social media by storm. Birria is a traditional Mexican dish of shredded meat in a stew, or consommé, made of the meat’s own fat. It’s typically made with goat, but beef is the next most-popular choice.
Marlly Sanchez grew up eating birria prepared with goat in her home state of California, and when she and her husband, Chris Garcia, opened their permanently parked food truck Tacos las Californias, this past July, birria tacos were a must-include menu item. Tacos las Californias was the first Tampa eatery to serve this style of taco (which they make with Angus beef), and Sanchez was nervous about their reception. “I really wasn’t sure how it was going to work for us. I was kind of scared,” she says. “But I knew that we had a good recipe for it, so we had to do it.”
The birria — or quesabirria — taco is almost closer to a quesadilla than a traditional taco thanks to its folded, toasty edges and melty cheese. At Tacos las Californias, the preparation starts the night before, when Sanchez sets the Angus beef to slow cook overnight. By the time it’s finished in the morning, the juicy meat effortlessly slides off the bone. The tortillas are dipped in the broth created by the cooking Angus, then toasted on the grill and topped with mozzarella, onions, cilantro and beef. The taco is then folded over to let both sides get extra crispy.
But perhaps the star of the show is the consommé — the broth created with the beef drippings, spices and little else. The money shot is one of a shredded beef and melty cheese-filled pressed tortilla being lovingly dunked into a bowl of this consommé, creating the perfect salty, savory, ever-so-slightly spicy bite.
There are variations on the formula to be had across Tampa’s Mexican restaurants. For example, Catrinas in West Tampa settled on a chuck blend after testing out short ribs and finding them, believe it or not, too tender. The meatiness is what makes the birria tacos, explains co-owner Karol Ortiz, and diners have told her they became a highlight of a particularly trying year.
“Quesabirria tacos with consommé might be one of the best things that my clients discovered during an otherwise tough year,” she says.
2020 was an unforgiving year that most people would soon rather forget, and quesabirria tacos were its antithesis; warm and comforting, a memory you want to share. It was word of mouth that helped quesabirria tacos, and in turn Tacos las Californias, take off. In the early days, Sanchez says, she would see customers try the tacos and immediately call a friend to come try them, too. Food bloggers and social media influencers like beauty vlogger Jaclyn Hill came and posted about their experiences (that incident led to the truck selling out of food less than four hours after opening the following day). Sanchez quickly had to jump from cooking 30 pounds of beef per day to 150 pounds, yielding 300 orders that sell out almost daily.
The beauty of the quesabirria tacos is that they mean something different to everyone who serves them. Ortiz says she started offering them to give her customers more Mexican comfort food options during the pandemic. For Sanchez and Garcia, it meant the realization of a long-held dream. They moved to Tampa in 2009 and wanted to open a restaurant, but it was never in the cards until this year. Now, their new, larger truck is almost complete, and they have plans to take the original truck on the road serving solely birria tacos.
The joy brought on by their recent success is clear on Garcia’s face. He throws his arms around this writer for a hug as our time together is wrapping up. He can’t help himself, he says.
“We’ve just wanted this for so long.”
WHERE TO FIND QUESABIRRIA TACOS
TACOS LAS CALIFORNIAS
7007 N. Armenia Ave.
1910 N. Ola Ave.
1611 N. Howard Ave.
615 Channelside Drive
1604 N. 17th St.
LOS CHAPOS TACOS
951 E. 7th Ave.
2506 W. Columbus Drive