Quesabirria tacos are right on the money for big gatherings. They’re hot, spicy, beefy, and cheesy. With a lip-licking, taco-dipping sauce alongside, they’re stellar for sharing with friends — best with loads of laughter. And napkins. Lots of napkins.
First there was birria
Adored for many centuries, birria is a fiery, meaty, slow-cooked, smoky stew from the Mexican state of Jalisco. Spiced with cinnamon, cumin, and cloves, its adobo-style sauce is tanged with apple cider vinegar, and enriched with onion, garlic, oregano, and charred cherry tomatoes.
Fiery? Oh, yeah. Birria’s complex burn comes from a mix of ancho chilies and chile de arbol. The ancho chilies are there to pull in a warming, smoky fruitiness. As for the arbols, well, the ones I’ve been cooking with recently are hot — easily as hot as bird’s eye chilies. Which means they’re adding a very evident, up-front fire.
So, what are quesabirria tacos?
Pack that hot and spicy birria into a tortilla, and crown it with cheese. That’s a quesabirria taco. Well, almost.
I say almost because you’ll be cleverly saving the birria’s cooking liquid to create the crucial ‘consommé’ — the sauce — that absolutely has to come alongside. And that sauce is vital for the really fun part — taco-dipping.
Now, stepping way back in time, the earliest versions of birria were certainly made with goat, and it was probably served in bowls, with a side of tortillas and extra sauce. Slightly less ‘genuine’ birria is often made with lamb — its flavors are a pretty close substitute for goat. Trouble is, there are lots of folks who aren’t super keen on those two sorts of meat. That’s probably why so much of today’s birria is made with beef. And that’s what we’ve chosen for our quesabirria tacos — bone-in, beef short rib, to be precise.
Choosing your beef
Short rib is perfect for this birria because it’s so suited to the slow, tenderizing cooking that releases all its intensely beefy richness. And by choosing bone-in short rib, you’ll be adding even greater depth to those glorious flavors.
You also want to look for short rib that’s nicely fatted. Around 15% fat is grand, but I’d happily go a little higher, rather than dropping any lower.
And there’s good reason for that sort of fat content. As the short rib slowly cooks in its adobo sauce, the fat is going to melt its glossy, high-beef flavors into the sauce. And the wonderful, slightly glutinous result is precisely what we’re looking for in these quesabirria tacos.
And your cheese choice?
To be strictly traditional, you’d have to go for the famous cheese of Jalisco — queso fresco. This is a very young or un-aged type of cheese — hence the fresco tag, meaning fresh. Pale-cream in color, mild, and fairly crumbly, it’s often compared with feta — especially the sort that has a low-salt taste, like so-called French or Danish feta.
So, bearing that convenient comparison in mind, I crumbled an easily acquired, mild feta onto the beefy birria — and was more than happy with the result. The feta’s cool, mellow tang is a great foil to the spicily hot, lavish richness of the birria. And because it’s not noted for melting, feta also adds a crumbly contrast to the oh-so-tender succulence of the beef and the slightly chewy softness of its tortilla envelope.
The simplest of sauces for your quesabirria tacos
It’s such a simple sauce because all you have to do is drain it from the birria’s cooking pot. Use a sieve to do this, and you’ll have generous amounts of the essential partner — the ‘consommé’ — for your quesabirria tacos.
It’s great as a dipping sauce for your tacos, and, if that’s the route you want to take, then you’ll certainly welcome having a few napkins to hand. Alternatively, you can just spoon the sauce into your hand-held taco and bravely go from there.
The taco-making tortillas
In the spirit of keeping things conveniently simple, I used 8-inch plain tortillas, each quickly warmed in a big skillet set on a high heat. Just like it says on the pack. Were mine authentic corn tortillas? Er, no. They were the far more readily available wheat variety. With the flavor-focus pulled in so tightly on the birria and that adobo sauce, I figured nobody was going to feel cheated by my non-purist choice of tortillas.
Besides all that, there’s a lot more filling in these tacos than there is tortilla — way more. I just about managed to get three pounds of pulled short rib into four tortillas. Which means that one quesabirria taco per person makes for a terrific lunch or supper.
The finishing touches. Limes and cilantro
The sharp, clean cutting bite of a little lime juice is always so welcome with food this hot and spicy. And here, that hit of citrusy freshness really highlights the diversity of flavors in your quesabirria.
As for the fresh cilantro, I like to leave it whole so that folks can roughly pull it apart and sprinkle the strongly aromatic ripped leaves and stems over their taco. Very Mexican, very quesabirria.
Quesabirria Tacos And Sauce
For the beef birria
- 2 ancho chilies The ones I used were about the size of a standard playing card. Stalks removed, and roughly chopped, seeds and all.
- 6 chile de arbol Mine were each just under 2 inches long. Stalks removed, and roughly chopped, seeds and all.
- 3 pounds bone-in beef short rib nicely fatted. Cut into chunky squares about 2 inches across, and an inch thick.
- 2 yellow onions medium-sizes, peeled, and roughly chopped.
- 8 cloves garlic peeled and finely sliced
- 1 heaped teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 heaped teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 6 cloves finely ground
- 1 ½ tablespoons apple cider vinegar
- 1 heaped teaspoon ground black pepper
- 2 heaped teaspoons ground sea salt
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
- 4 cups water
For finishing the birria’s sauce
- 2 pounds cherry tomatoes left whole
- All the liquid drained from the birria once it’s cooked
- 3 heaped teaspoons fresh oregano Strip away any hard, dark stalks and finely chop all the rest.
- 1 heaped teaspoon brown sugar I used Muscovado for its lovely caramel flavor, but any good quality brown sugar will be fine.
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 cup water
For the tortillas
- 4 tortillas 8-inch diameter. I used plain, wheat tortillas. If you can find the corn variety, so much the better.
For the cheese
- 3 ½ ounces feta cheese or, if available, use the traditional Mexican queso fresco. Choose a mild feta — like so-called French or Danish feta — that is lower in salt than the stronger, sharper, and saltier Greek variety.
Cooking the beef birria
- This begins by browning the pieces of short rib in a big Dutch oven — which you’ll also use for slow-cooking the beef and its sauce.
- Set your Dutch oven on a high heat and add two tablespoons olive oil. As soon as the oil starts shimmering, add the beef in a single, evenly spaced layer. Drop the heat to medium-high and let the chunks sizzle away for about four minutes on each side.
- You’re looking to get a dark, golden color on either side of the beef. Once that happens, use a slotted spoon to remove the beef and set it aside on a dinner plate. You’ll probably need to do this browning in two batches, using two tablespoons of oil for each batch of beef. When you remove the last batch of beef, aim to keep as much of the fatted oil as you can in the Dutch oven. That’s important because you’re now going to start making the beef’s cook-in sauce in that oil.
- Set your Dutch oven back on a high heat and stir in the onion, so it all gets a coating of oil. Drop the heat to medium-high and let the onion fry for about 5 minutes until it softens and picks up a pale golden color. Now stir in the garlic, cumin, cinnamon, cloves, salt, and black pepper. Fry the mix on that medium-high heat with a few regular stirs for another five minutes or so until the onion picks up a dark gold color. Good. Add the apple cider vinegar, the roughly chopped chilies, and the water. Drop the heat to low and let the whole lot simmer gently — with a few stirs — for 10 minutes.
- Now add the browned beef and all its plate-juices — keeping the heat on low. Give it all a good stir and cover the top of the Dutch oven with silver foil so that it overlaps the top by about 2 inches all round. Now put the lid on and crimp the foil to make sure you get a really good seal all around the lid. You need that tight seal, so the beef can slowly — and I mean slowly — simmer in all its sauce for 2 hours.
- You want the beef to be just barely bubbling in the sauce during this slow, steamy, sealed-in simmering. And while that’s happening, you’ll have plenty of time to char the tomatoes, so they’re ready to join the saucy beef a little later
- So, for the tomatoes, set a big heavy skillet — I used a deep-sided, 12 inch one — on a high heat, and add one tablespoon olive oil. As the oil just starts to smoke a little, add half the cherry tomatoes in an evenly spaced, single layer. Let them sit on that high heat for about 4 minutes. You’ll find the tomatoes flatten slightly with all that heat on their blackening undersides — that’s grand. Now give them a stirring turn to expose their upper sides to that charring heat. Let them run for another 4 minutes, and then turn them into a bowl.
- Add another tablespoon of olive oil to the skillet and repeat the charring process for the rest of the tomatoes. As soon as that second batch finishes charring, return the first batch of tomatoes to the skillet, and add the oregano, brown sugar and water. Drop the heat to low-medium and let the mix bubble away with a couple of stirs for about 15 minutes. You want the tomatoes to soften enough so that you can easily crush them all apart with a wooden spoon. Good. The tomato mix is ready to join the beef — once it has finished its slow, Dutch oven cooking.
- After the beef has been simmering for 2 hours, add the tomatoes and all their juices. Scrape the skillet as clean as you can so that all the tomatoey mix gets added to your Dutch oven. Give everything a good, combining stir and turn the heat under that big pot to high. As soon as the sauce starts bubbling, drop the heat to low. Check the sauce for saltiness, and adjust according to your taste.
- For the next 60 minutes, you want your now fully sauced birria to cook, covered, at that same at slow, low simmer.
- Once the 60 minutes are up, use a big sieve to drain — and carefully keep — all the sauce from the birria into a suitably sized pan. That gave me about three cups of sauce.
- Return the drained beef to your big pot, then remove the bones and discard them. This is where I like to pull any remaining fatty pieces from the beef, chop them finely, and mix them back into the beef as I pull it all apart with my fingers. Remember, fat is flavor.
- Let the pulled beef sit covered in the still-warm Dutch oven — you’re now ready to make your quesabirria tacos.
Heating the tortillas
- For this, I used the same skillet in which the charred tomatoes were prepped.
- Follow the heating instructions on your tortillas’ pack. For me, that meant heating each tortilla on a high heat for 20 seconds on each side, then covering the hot tortillas with a kitchen towel, so they stayed warmly soft. Easy.
Serving your quesabirria tacos
- Pour your carefully reserved ‘consommé’ into a microwave proof jug and heat it in the microwave for maybe a minute on high. You want it piping hot, and ready to serve into four small bowls — one for each happy guest.
- Now spoon an equal amount of the pulled beef onto the middle of each warm tortilla. Fold each tortilla, so you get that classic, taco-style filling in each tortilla.
- Crumble some feta over the birria filling, and you’re done — quesabirria tacos!