Before I tell you about some of the beefiest birria tacos I’ve sampled recently, allow me to paint a tableau of what I’ve encountered over the years at Vida Verde, the Midtown West bar that serves them: Vengaboys and Shakira blasting through the sound system, lots of people eating cheesy nachos, lots of people hanging around the weekend DJ, lots of neon signage, giant frozen drink machines spinning red and orange margaritas, folks trying to sneak up to the rooftop bar even when it’s closed, an off-duty chef from a nearby hotel who asked if I wanted to do a line of coke with him in the bathroom, a disco ball that shines with such force your phone might not recognize the QR-code menu, a mural depicting Frida Kahlo with polychromatic succulents in outer space, and multiple televisions showing Pixar’s “Coco” on loop. Or to sum things up, this is a splashy tri-level spot that channels a specific type of “every day is Cinco de Mayo” energy.
That all said, regulars know that Vida Verde’s clubstaurant vibes belie its simple approach to Mexican cooking. This is no Tao; the venue has long attracted a crowd of post-shift hospitality workers and neighborhood denizens seeking late-night nourishment from chicken tinga, carnitas, quesadillas, and huitlacoche. A more notable development, however, is the presence of birria, the classic yet increasingly viral stew of adobo-slathered goat, lamb, or beef that one would more regularly find — at least a year or so ago in New York — at a food truck or taqueria.
Chef Ignacio Cotzomi, a native Pueblan who spent two decades at Rosa Mexicano, slowly roasts brisket until tender. He then rips off a bit of meat to make tacos, which he serves with chopped cilantro and cabbage. On the side, he places a cup of chile consomme for sipping and dipping. He does not, it should be noted, douse his tortillas in chile-laced fat, a technique that gives the preparation a crimson sheen elsewhere. The brisket itself flaunts an intensely browned and crispy exterior; it exudes an intoxicating bovine aroma that recalls the best suadero tacos or griddled burgers. Meanwhile, the broth, derived from the pan juices and studded with onions, would make the jus in a French dip seem diluted by comparison; its sweet earthiness stings the nostrils the second it hits the table.
The tacos are exceedingly delicious, but the dish, more broadly, exemplifies the warp speed path that birria has been plowing through our restaurant ecosystem. Birria, a Jalisco stew that rose to popularity in Tijuana as brothy red tacos, is now a stateside phenomenon, simultaneously proliferating at streetside vendors and takeout spots while also finding a home at sleeker and more upscale venues — where it can command steeper prices.
“We started making birria because people started asking for it,” Alfredo Torres, owner at La Flor de Izucar Café, told Eater NY in March, a sentiment that my colleague Luke Fortney has documented at Mexican spots across the city. As restaurants closed in droves during the pandemic, food trucks selling birria multiplied, bolstered by a social media craze; on TikTok alone, the #birria hashtag received more than 148 million video views in the first two months of 2021.
New York in particular has benefited from the birria wave. One of my best meals of 2020 occurred at Jose Moreno’s Birria-Landia truck in Jackson Heights, where I crouched down on the sidewalk to shove juicy birria tacos into my mouth and sip spicy broth. The entire meal cost about $10, though things are getting more expensive elsewhere as upscale brick-and-mortar establishments start to jump in on the birria trend. Chef Henry Zamora, who worked at the French Laundry, asks a slightly steeper $17 for his lamb birria at Tacos Güey in Flatiron, while Atla by Enrique Olvera starts its own short rib birria at $29, a price that channels the ubiquitous gourmet burgers of the late aughts.
Given these cultural-capitalistic trajectories, one might legitimately worry about how birria might take more unfortunate turns as it continues to ricochet through the food world. Nashville hot chicken was famously and controversially featured at KFC, while Shake Shack tried out a (not very good) Korean-style fried chicken. Accordingly, it’s hard not to wonder whether we’ll eventually see birria at a Taco Bell or Chipotle, where it’ll be another dish stripped of context, culture, and community, all in the interest of corporate profits.
For now, the ascendancy of birria has led a longtime chef — one who’s stayed out of the spotlight for decades — to double down on the dish’s beefy flavors like few others have, and serve it at a place where many of the patrons simply come expecting boozy frozen margaritas.
Cotzomi first slathers his brisket in black pepper, salt, cumin, and guajillo and ancho chiles. Then, instead of braising it in a soupy, Tijuana-stye broth, he roasts the meat for four-and-a-half hours in banana leaves. The result is a birria that’s a touch less juicy than that of its peers — it was a whisper dry on the last of three visits — but one that impressively conveys the subtle flavors and textures of good beef. Afer a patron orders the birria, Cotzomi lets the brisket crisp up for a minute or so on the plancha, for more savory maillard char.
Dip the tacos in broth, or pour the dark consomme all over them for a messier birria experience. The heat level is subdued, though your insides warm quickly when you deploy a bit of salsa de arbol, which provides much needed acidity to cut through the richness. Also take note of the tortillas, which are small, warm, and fragrant of maize; Cotzomi buys them fresh every day from Nixtamal in Queens.
So you know where this is going. I’m rating the birria tacos at Vida Verde a BUY. Though quite frankly the nachos and frozen margs are pretty darn good too.