By Pete Wells
If you get off the No. 7 train at the 74th Street-Broadway station in Queens and walk east along Roosevelt Avenue, you’ll have an opportunity to eat a new taco every few yards. By the time you’ve gone a mile, if not sooner, you’ll have found every kind of taco that is consumed in New York on this stretch of road in Jackson Heights. Tacos are sold from the windows of takeout taquerias, from sit-down restaurants and bars with neon Modelo signs in the window, from the deli counters of convenience stores, from carts with vertical grills that roast spinning pink towers of marinated pork for tacos al pastor.
The most talked-about tacos of the year, though, are sold from a white truck that pulls up each afternoon around dusk in front of an auto mechanic’s unusually large and well-groomed parking lot at the corner of Roosevelt and 78th Street. When the truck opens for business, at around 5 p.m. on weekdays and about 1 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, the men working inside will arrange a trash can, a plastic cooler filled with ice and bottles of Jarritos, and a handful of folding stools on the sidewalk. Signs on either side of the window, illuminated by a long strip of blue light, read “Beefrria-Landia.”
In fact, the truck is named Birria-Landia. Birria is the filling in those tacos, the foundation of the other items on the extremely short menu, and the reason for the line that starts to take shape at the sidewalk-facing window each afternoon and that dissipates and rematerializes several times until the truck drives away, usually long after midnight.
In Mexican culture, birria means different things to different people. To those not talking about food, it signifies trash, a mess, something you’re better off not inspecting too closely. In the state of Jalisco, it also means a hunk of goat or other meat massaged with spices and cooked slowly — formerly in an outdoor pit but these days, chances are, in an oven. Somebody from Zacatecas who hears birria will picture birria de res, beef stew cooked in party-size portions and served on plates or bowls. In Tijuana, and lately in more and more parts of Southern California, when you say birria, people are likely to imagine birria de res, but they will picture it on a taco.
Credit…Jenny Huang for The New York Times
The birria at Birria-Landia is Tijuana-style birria de res, beef marinated and cooked in an adobo of hypnotic complexity. The meat, a blend of brisket, shank and top round, is rich and seems to grow softer as you eat it, like a square of chocolate. Chopped to pieces, it is folded into tacos, scattered over tostadas or sandwiched between facing pairs of quesadillas to make mulitas.
If this were the whole story, Birria-Landia would still be a respectable addition to Roosevelt Avenue. But it is not the whole story, because Tijuana tradition decrees that the tortillas must first be dipped into the shimmering coppery beef fat that rises to the surface of the stew pot, then warmed on a griddle until they are pliable and electrifyingly red. This brings the birria’s spices right into the tortillas, doubling the throb of dried, toasted guajillo and morita chiles, and the minor hints of cinnamon and clove that you can already taste in the beef. The fat dip must be one reason Birria-Landia stands out in New York City, where most of the tortillas could use a little help.
Tijuana custom also demands pausing between bites of a birria taco for a sip of birria broth, known as consomé and generally given away in a small paper cup. In Los Angeles, where birria de res tacos have recently become an obsession, many people take this an extra step and dunk their tacos into the consomé. This custom has taken off on social media, which has in turn fueled the rise of birria vendors such as Teddy’s Red Tacos, which has one restaurant, two trucks and more than 100,000 Instagram followers.
There is no error in dunking your tacos de birria or in keeping them dry, either. What would be a shame would be to miss out entirely on Birria-Landia’s consomé, which is so flavorful and meat-laden it almost overshadows everything else. Whether through long simmering or quick reduction, the broth is about as thick as melted butter. True, they don’t give it away. Some traditions simply don’t travel to New York. But at $4 for a small cup and $6 for a large one, the consomé is a worthwhile expense, particularly because it always seems to include a ladleful or two of meat.