Anne Marie Panoringan
Voice of OC’s food columnist — reporting on industry news, current events and trends. Panoringan’s prior work includes writing about food for eight years at the OC Weekly in which she interviewed more than 330 chefs, restauranteurs and industry professionals for her weekly “On the Line” column. She has been recognized by the Orange County Press Club and she also is a recurring guest on AM 830’s SoCal Restaurant Show.
Birria isn’t a new dish.
The stewed, shredded meat that’s infused with layers of flavor is beloved in Mexican cuisine. Depending on the region in Mexico that it’s made in, the meat might be beef, goat or lamb. Orange County kitchens are predominantly using beef to make it more appealing to diners not accustomed to other proteins. Birria has gained so much traction, restaurants are popping up that are creating menus centered around the comforting food.
Santa Ana’s La Super Birria is planning to open in both Orange and Stanton, while Birrieria Guadalajara has branches in all three cities, plus La Habra, Anaheim and a new spot in Costa Mesa. These are only two examples that have made an established (yet underrated) dish more approachable to locals.
My approach to birria was to understand it on a smaller scale. I learned of a family-owned birria pop-up in Costa Mesa at the beginning of this year around the same time as a tenant inside Stanton’s Rodeo 39 Public Market would officially launch a birria/hot chicken quick service concept. The biggest challenge would be avoiding getting too full.
Salsas Al Gusto
The sun was already high in the sky when I visited The Hood Kitchen Space, a commercial cooking facility rented out by small businesses fulfilling culinary dreams for the last decade. A makeshift patio came together as Ely Vargas reconfigured tables and umbrellas to accommodate the shifting shade before disappearing to fetch her son, Armando, my contact at Salsas Al Gusto’s weekly ode to birria.
I stopped by to learn more about the birria-forward menu at their pop-up which has been a takeaway-only option since November; the day I visited was their first service with outdoor seating. The eldest of three sons, Armando Vargas Jr. explained how birria is traditionally produced in Mexico using goat meat, but beef is utilized locally since it’s a more familiar protein to patrons unfamiliar with the dish.
Most restaurants make birria from a cut of meat known as shoulder clod, an inexpensive cut of beef taken from the shoulder of the animal; Armando Sr. leans toward a more tender section possessing higher marbleization referred to as chuck roll. It’s a higher price point, yet the subtle difference in taste matters to Armando’s father. “We’re happy to absorb the additional cost as we wish to treat our customers like family. When shopping for meat, you’ll often hear butchers asking if you’re looking for meat to cook, sell or feed your own family — it’s a common reference point,” says Armando Jr. Ten spices and herbs make up birria’s flavor profile in Salsas Al Gusto’s two-hour cooking process.
Early in the pandemic, Armando Jr. moved back to Orange County to spend more time with his parents and siblings. Sensing his father’s lack of fulfillment with his job, Vargas Jr. contemplated a project they could work on as a family. Armando Sr.’s penchant for taking care of others through his cooking would inspire the beginning of Salsas al Gusto. The business name represented a dual purpose: to signify a signature item Armando Sr. is known for, as well as a way to broaden its desired audience. Per the younger Armando, “al gusto” loosely translates to “how you like it” and refers to the family’s desire to create dishes that will appeal to many tastes. “From sweet and mild, all the way up to mouth-tingling spicy,” says Vargas Jr.
This weekend-only operation has Ely Vargas overseeing operations while her husband mans the flat top griddle, or plancha (dividing his time between the family business and his own carpet/floor cleaning service). Thanks to her full-time employment with benefits, Armando Sr. is able to focus on being an entrepreneur. Middle son Anthony handles the numbers, doubling as sous chef with his previous experience working at Wahoo’s. Armando Jr. looks after marketing and social media, while the youngest Vargas keeps the rest of the family company.
Additional key ingredients to Salsa Al Gusto’s menu include lining up for handmade corn tortillas from Amapola Deli and Market in Downey, known for making its masa fresh daily. “Amapola has always delivered the right balance of freshness, flavor and texture,” says Vargas Jr. The nutty, spicy salsa macha is done in-house, inspired by Michelin-starred Taco Maria’s condiment. Both versions contain peanuts, with the main difference lying in the type of chiles used: Taco Maria uses morita chile peppers compared to the Vargas family’s chile de arbol, a spicier variety.
Oversized quesabirria tacos are offered folded or open-faced with purple cabbage and are best enjoyed dipped in a ramekin of beef consomé (the same cooking liquid used to prepare the birria) prior to taking a bite. Ely Vargas also adds a touch of beef to the consomé for extra flavor. Dipping the tortillas in the consomé prior to laying on the plancha imparts not only a red hue on the tacos but an added crunch to Salsa Al Gusto’s final product. I personally enjoy the fact that Armando Sr. allows a layer of cheese to melt onto the tortilla early on for an unexpected gooey mouthfeel.
In addition, the business is touting the first quesabirria tamale in O.C., humbly crafted by Anthony Vargas and his father. Incorporating the same flavorful meat in a less messy form made it difficult to decide which dish I preferred. So instead of debating, I powered through both and washed lunch down with a cooling watermelon agua fresca as a food coma took over … but not before taking a bite out of the special dessert offered by Maricela De La Rosa of La Cocina De Nena, tres leches cupcake!
Forthcoming updates by Salsas al Gusto include adding DoorDash as a delivery option instead of picking up orders at The Hood Kitchen, a jamaica- (i.e. hibiscus-) infused salsa in the works, plus more Saturday opportunities to try out the normally Sunday-only pop-up.
To discuss the new birria food stall, Buenos Migos, at Rodeo 39 Public Market requires some backstory to help put things into context. When this expansive food hall initially launched, the sole full-service dining option was a seafood restaurant; unfortunately sales floundered and it folded in 2021.
Elsewhere in the market, a Hawaiian-inspired concept named Shootz was on fire, surpassing expectations with steady lines long enough to regularly block the restroom entrance while waiting for brûléed Spam musubis. Its four founders (Michael Dancel, Nolan Perez, Christian Solomona and Harold Walters) were given the opportunity to relocate into the seafood restaurant’s vacancy and alleviate pedestrian traffic. By doing so, Shootz now possesses a dedicated seating area, room for a sizable queue, plus the ability to add specialty beverages to its menu. Plans to expand the brand throughout Southern California are already in progress.
When Shootz shifted locations within Rodeo 39, it still left another space to occupy. The co-founders of Shootz opted to venture into a second concept, this time recruiting Philip Nguyen to share responsibilities. Dancel and Nguyen provided insight when I reached out for details on their thought process for selecting a duo of meats to highlight at Buenos Migos.
As SoCal natives, the guys grew up appreciating the food their local taquerias produced. “We happen to be huge fans of birria, hot chicken and tacos, and we honestly felt these were the only things missing from Rodeo 39’s otherwise very diverse mix of cultures offered,” Dancel said. After testing other possible flavors and meats, birria was the clear favorite. The team also acknowledged the popularity of hot chicken in recent years and wanted to serve its own version of the trend, blending Mexican flavors with Nashville spices.
Nguyen expanded on the cooking process, first pointing out that while carne asada is also beef, it is typically grilled, versus the slow-cooked preparation for birria. The specific cut of meat used by Buenos Migos to produce its birria is a boneless beef shank. Once the spices are blended and the beef has been seared, the components come together in a pot of water to stew for a minimum of four hours. The meat becomes tender and easy to shred, which can then be used over nachos, in tacos or to finish off a street hotdog.
“It’s delicious, but for us, we feel there’s so much more love and flavor that goes into birria. Which is why we decided to build a restaurant concept around it,” Nguyen said.
Although they’ve never experimented with goat meat, if Buenos Migos receives enough requests for it, they would consider exploring the idea. Since its soft opening toward the end of 2021, the restaurant’s best seller is a Buenos queso birria taco; chipotle hot chicken is close behind.
Will birria outlast its trending status? It may oversaturate the market sooner rather than later, but the places that do the recipe’s authenticity justice will stick around far past any expiration date.
Anne Marie Panoringan is the food columnist for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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