Restaurant Reviews

Wild or Mild

The luminous orange grease tints the white bowl above the dark red broth. I unwrap the aluminum foil that contains the warm corn tortillas and fish some of the soft stewed meat out of the liquid with a fork. As I arrange the meat on the tortilla, the pungent aroma of goat meat fills the air. Another foil package contains chopped onions and cilantro, which I strew on top of my taco just before I roll it up. I dunk each bite in the spicy broth, the way my father used to dunk doughnuts in his coffee.

Each bite lubricates my lips with hot goat grease. The piquant and bitter taste of dried chile de arbol in the broth sets off the gamy goat filling and raw-onion topping. It's the most intensely flavored taco I've eaten in years. When all the tacos are gone, I slurp up the broth with a spoon.

Birria de chivo, goat meat stewed in a spicy broth, is native to Guadalajara, but it's also a favorite street food in Mexico City. In Spanish, birria literally means "mess," and chivo means goat. To make it, the meat is cooked in a broth until it's falling apart.

I first tasted it at a little birriería (as a birria restaurant is known) in a Mexican neighborhood in Chicago. While Mexican cabrito (kid goat) dishes have been popular in Texas for the last 400 years or so, I'd never seen the birria style of goat cookery here before.

Then, about a month ago, I was driving a little too fast, in a hurry to make an appointment, when out of the corner of my eye I saw the word "birria" on a taco truck. I made a mental note to come back and check it out. But unfortunately, I forgot exactly where in southwest Houston I'd seen it. I searched for weeks. One day I drove the entire length of Bissonnet, from Loop 610 to State Highway 6, looking for that damn taco truck. While I was searching for the birria de chivo truck, I tried the food from a lot of other taco trucks.

There are somewhere between 600 and 800 licensed mobile kitchens operating in Harris County. They're approved by the health department, and each must display a valid inspection sticker. The taco trucks are supposed to return to a commissary to be cleaned and restocked every night. But complaints are frequently filed about trucks that hook up to local electric and water sources and seem to be semi-permanent. Some of them no longer have wheels.

Taco-truck food ranges from stellar to abysmal. There used to be a taco truck behind the farmers' market on Airline called Taqueria Tacambaro that served spectacular Michoacan-style tacos. But the last time I went there, it didn't show up. I had a pretty good Frito pie at a truck parked in front of the Food Mart at Synott and Bissonnet. And I took home some decent roasted chicken from a truck on Long Point. But when this kind of food is bad, it's really bad.

I got the worst tacos I've ever sampled at a truck labeled El Michoacano No. 1 parked alongside a Texaco on Bissonnet. The woman who made the food didn't even put down her cell phone when she took my order. She dipped tortillas in oil and put them on a cold griddle that she turned on while she talked on the phone. The tortillas were soaking wet with grease, and the griddle wasn't even lukewarm. She got some nasty fajita meat out of a foil-covered container and spread it on the cold tortillas, then wrapped them up and handed them to me. I took one bite and threw the package in the garbage can in front of her. She was evidently unimpressed, as she just kept talking on the phone.

I finally found the birria truck on Bellaire one day when I was heading to Chinatown. This time, I pulled over immediately. The elusive taco truck calls itself La Raza Tacos, and it parks at the corner of Redding and Bellaire in the parking lot of a convenience store. It's run by the Ramos family of Mexico City, and they take great pride in their food.

Instead of birria tacos, which go for $1.50 each, I talked them into putting $8 worth of goat meat and broth into a giant Styrofoam container and wrapping up the tortillas on the side so the tacos wouldn't get soggy. I also sampled their torta chilango, a Mexico City-style sandwich made with fajita meat and chorizo with lots of bright orange grease.

I was having a few friends over, so I put the birria de chivo in a bowl with the tortillas alongside and set it out on the table. The taco-truck takeout food was a huge hit at this cocktail fest, not only because of the acute chile burn, the goaty aroma and the funky flavor, but also because nobody had ever heard of birria before.

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Robb Walsh
Contact: Robb Walsh