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Tampa Bay’s latest food craze? Quesabirria tacos

The cheesy, beef-filled tacos are creating a buzz at local restaurants and food trucks.
Quesabirria tacos are served at Tacos Las Californias, a new Mexican restaurant on Armenia Avenue in Tampa. The tacos, traditionally served with a chili-rich beef birria, or stew, have been popular in California for many years and recently started showing up on Tampa Bay menus.
Quesabirria tacos are served at Tacos Las Californias, a new Mexican restaurant on Armenia Avenue in Tampa. The tacos, traditionally served with a chili-rich beef birria, or stew, have been popular in California for many years and recently started showing up on Tampa Bay menus. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]
Published Nov. 10, 2020

The bright orange tortilla sizzles on the smoking flattop. It’s topped with juicy, shredded beef and a tiny mountain of cheese. As it cooks, the cheese begins to melt and ooze onto the grill, forming crunchy, lacy edges that crisp in the heat. A dash of minced white onions, cilantro and lime and it’s ready to go — but not before a hearty dunk into a bowl of a dark red, chili-tinged broth.

This is quesabirria, and it’s taking Tampa Bay restaurants and food trucks by storm.

If you’ve spent any time on social media the past couple of months, there’s a good chance you’ve come across photos or videos of someone dunking a golden-fried taco shell into a cup of slick broth — the style of taco known as quesabirria. The dish combines birria, a traditional Mexican stew, and cheese, folded into a tortilla that is fried until crispy.

Sometimes called red tacos, the tortillas get their signature hue from a dip into chili-laced beef broth before sizzling on the grill. The tacos are usually served with a cup of consomme, a concentrated broth made from the leftover juices of the stew.

Marlly Sanchez-Garcia and her husband Chris Garcia own Tacos Las Californias on 7007 N Armenia Ave. in Tampa.
Marlly Sanchez-Garcia and her husband Chris Garcia own Tacos Las Californias on 7007 N Armenia Ave. in Tampa. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

When Marlly Sanchez-Garcia opened her Tampa restaurant Tacos Las Californias in July, she had no idea her quesabirria would take off the way it did. But since day one, her Armenia Avenue spot has become synonymous with the dish.

“We put it on the menu and it just took off,” Sanchez-Garcia said. Now, orders for the cheesy tacos make up 90 percent of her sales. She averages about 300 orders on a busy day and always sells out.

Though birria, a hearty stew made with either beef, goat or lamb, is eaten in different regions of Mexico, the quesabirria boom is most widely associated with the street food scene in Tijuana, Mexico, and parts of Southern California, in particular Los Angeles and San Diego. Powered by social media, a group of chefs and food truck operators brought the dish to mainstream diners several years ago, and since then, chefs across the country have jumped on the bandwagon.

Sanchez-Garcia, who is Honduran, grew up in San Diego in a predominantly Mexican community. She said she was inspired to make the dish after eating birria as a child and after seeing the quesabirria craze take off in California. And though her restaurant is one of the more well-known Tampa spots selling quesabirria, in the past couple of months, a growing number of Tampa Bay restaurant owners and food entrepreneurs are getting into the game, from highbrow chefs to home cooks.

At his Sparkman Wharf taco stand Gallito, chef Ferrell Alvarez sells quesabirria tacos made with slow-cooked beef short ribs, Chihuahua cheese and a thick beef consomme. At his more upscale restaurant Rooster & the Till, a more elevated version of the dish is made with lamb neck stew in a lamb fat flour tortilla with cheese and an avocado crema.

Birria tacos are served with lamb or beef at Chicken and Taco Loco in Brandon.
Birria tacos are served with lamb or beef at Chicken and Taco Loco in Brandon. [ HELEN FREUND | Tampa Bay Times ]

The most widely known version of birria in the United States might be the Zacatecas-style birria de res, a savory beef stew served at celebratory occasions like birthdays and holidays. That’s how Jimmy Nunez remembers it. The owner of Ybor City’s Jimmy’s Tacos grew up eating the stew on special occasions and has been serving birria tacos on the weekends at the tiny taco hub since he opened last November.

Nunez describes his birria as a Tijuana- and California-style birria, made with beef and a variety of different chili peppers. The interpretations of both quesabirria and birria vary widely, but there are a few constants, including fruity and smoky dried guajillo peppers.

At Brandon’s Chicken and Taco Loco, owner Jaqueline Aguilar fuses two different techniques for her birria. Her recipe is a hybrid of the lamb or goat birria traditionally served in the Mexican state of Jalisco and the barbacoa served in Hidalgo, where a whole goat or lamb is roasted over a pit and wrapped in banana or maguey leaves.

“The gastronomy in Mexico has such a wide variety,” Aguilar said. “Every state has their own recipe for their same dish.”

To make her birria, Aguilar roasts agave leaves and then wraps them around either lamb or beef marinated in spices and chiles. The meat is roasted over low heat for about seven hours, until it’s smoky and fall-apart tender. The juices from the roast are later used to make the stew, which features large hunks of meat, chickpeas and rice.

The melty, filled-to-the brim tacos are served with a fresh lime wedge and a smoky salsa made from fiery chile de arbol and chile rayado peppers.

“It’s a long process to get right,” Aguilar said. “But I’m trying to get as close as possible as we do in Mexico.”

It took a few years for the trend to arrive in Tampa Bay, but now that it’s here, it’s safe to say quesabirria is here to stay.

Where to find birria and quesabirria tacos

Chicken and Taco Loco Bar & Grill

Birria tacos are served with lamb or beef at Chicken and Taco Loco in Brandon.
Birria tacos are served with lamb or beef at Chicken and Taco Loco in Brandon. [ HELEN FREUND | Tampa Bay Times ]

On Saturdays and Sundays only, the Brandon restaurant serves birria made with either lamb or beef. The tacos come three per order ($18) and the stew accompanying the tacos is served in a bowl, rather than a cup. (You can easily share this dish with another person.) The restaurant also has a food truck of the same name, but the birria tacos are only served at the brick-and-mortar location.

716 W Lumsden Road, Brandon. 813-654-3799. chickentacoloco.com.

Gallito

Beef quesabirria tacos are served at Gallito at Tampa's Sparkman Wharf.
Beef quesabirria tacos are served at Gallito at Tampa's Sparkman Wharf. [ HELEN FREUND | Tampa Bay Times ]

Both the Sparkman Wharf location and the Lakeland spot serve quesabirria tacos, which come two per order for $8 and are filled with Chihuahua cheese on heirloom corn tortillas. The tortillas are fried until crispy, topped with onions and cilantro and served with a thick and deeply concentrated consomme for dipping.

815 Channelside Drive, Tampa; 640 E Main St., Lakeland. gallitotampa.com.

Jimmy’s Tacos

Birria and al pastor tacos are served at Jimmy's Tacos in Ybor City.
Birria and al pastor tacos are served at Jimmy's Tacos in Ybor City. [ HELEN FREUND | Tampa Bay Times ]

The Ybor City spot serves California-style birria, made with beef, and the tacos are served on small corn tortillas topped with cilantro and white onions. The birria tacos come three per order with a drink for $10. The restaurant also serves a separate quesabirria taco with Chihuahua cheese on a large 12-inch flour tortilla for $14.

1604 N 17th St., Tampa. 813-242-0242. jimmystacosfl.com.

Nueva Cantina

The St. Petersburg Mexican restaurant recently launched a quesabirria special, and what was planned to last a few days has proved so popular the dish is now a frequent find. Three flour tortillas are pan-fried and filled with slow-cooked beef short ribs, then topped with onions and cilantro and served with a chipotle dipping sauce, rice and black beans. Because the dish is still just listed as a special, it’s best to call ahead to make sure it’s offered on any given day.

1625 Fourth St. S, St. Petersburg. 727-851-9579. nuevacantina.com.

Rooster & the Till

Lamb neck birria is cooked until fall-apart tender for six hours and folded into a lamb fat flour tortilla with Chihuahua cheese and fried until crispy ($16). The quesadilla is served with an avocado yogurt and mango habanero hot sauce.

6500 N Florida Ave., Tampa. 813-374-8940. roosterandthetill.com.

Tampa Taco

Rudy Avilar recently started selling quesabirria tacos out of his Tampa home and has since moved to a popup location outside the El Rancho Grocery store in Old West Tampa. Avilar sells quesabirria tacos on Fridays from 4 to 9 p.m. and Saturdays from noon to 9 p.m., or until he sells out. The tacos are served three per order on homemade corn tortillas (his friend’s mother makes them fresh daily) for $10.

Tip: It’s best to follow Avilar’s account on social media to find out where he’s slinging tacos on any given day.

2745 W Chestnut St., Tampa. instagram.com/tampa.taco.

Taquito’s

The Bay Pines restaurant started running quesabirria tacos as a special and they’ve now landed on the regular menu. Three tacos are filled with shredded beef and cheese, pan-fried and topped with onions and cilantro and served with a cup of beef consomme for $11.99.

9617 Bay Pines Blvd., St. Petersburg. 727-256-1617. taquitosmex.com.

Tacos Las Californias

Birria ramen made with shredded beef and Tapatio noodles is served with a quesabirria taco at Tacos Las Californias.
Birria ramen made with shredded beef and Tapatio noodles is served with a quesabirria taco at Tacos Las Californias. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

Quesabirria tacos are served three per order on corn tortillas filled with shredded, stewed beef and mozzarella cheese (the tacos can be ordered on flour tortillas, if desired) for $10. The restaurant also serves birria ramen, which features the same birria stew meat and broth and comes topped with diced onions, cilantro and limes.

7007 N Armenia Ave., Tampa. 813-384-0615. facebook.com/tacoslascalifornias.