I’m not sure how it escaped the fanatical Mexican foodie. But I had never tasted it before in my life. Never had even heard of it in my life.
The dish was karne en su jugo. Or as it’s usually spelled, carne en su jugo. Or, as a language-challenged guy like Don Day might call it, meat in its own juice. Or, as you might just call it after you’ve tasted it, the best bean dish in Mexico.
The restaurant is called Birria Xalisco and it opened about four months ago on Salida a Celaya in San Miguel de Allende. It already had two locations in nearby Celaya. And its original home, and the original home of almost everything they serve in the restaurant, is Guadalajara, in the state of Jalisco. Four different locations might make you think of Birria Xalisco as a chain but, trust me, there’s nothing about eating at Birria Xalisco that will make you think you’re eating at a chain.
A lot of the individual personality of the place has to do with a guy called Alejandro Hernandez Diez. Alejandro owns all four Birria Xalisco locations but he’s resident at the one in San Miguel de Allende. And visiting the restaurant here is like visiting the kitchen of his own home. I can’t think of anyone in this town who is more proud of what they’re putting on plates. And Alejandro has reason to be proud.
Karne en su jugo is soupy enough to eat with a spoon, but chunky enough to scoop up with what Alejandro Hernandez Diez says are “the town’s best tortillas”. I think I’ve heard the words “town’s best tortillas” at least 20 times in San Miguel. But I don’t think there are many better bean dishes in the whole wide world.
Karne en su jugo begins with what is Mexico’s most popular treatment of beans, the very simple frijoles de la olla, a pot of pinto beans simmered with a little onion until tender. Then bacon is fried in a pan along with strips of beef and added to the beans (and I don’t think any of the bacon grease gets lost along the way). The spicing comes in a separate bowl on the side so you can, like those recipe books say, “add to taste”.
With a healthy amount of chiles de arbol as one of the prime ingredients in the sauce, my old friend Rich, who was joining me for lunch, warned, “Watch out for the fire”. As he scooped up the last few drops of juice, he also said, “Who would have thought that something we’ve never heard of could be this good!”
Birria Xalisco is not what you’d call a fancy restaurant. Not even close to it. It’s one of those simple places that’s all about the food and service and nothing about the ambience. It’s a place that I now cherish going to for lunch but I’ll probably never go to for dinner. About the best adjective I could come up with for the look is funky and, I admit it, though I’m a fan of funky decoration, not everyone is. Rich summed it up best when he said, “The wives aren’t going to like this place. The guys are going to love it.”
The furniture is the refresco red plastic variety from the Coca Cola Bottling Co. The signage is splash and dash. The graphics are of the drunken sign painter school. But the place is comfortable, very comfortable and, though Alejandro Hernandez Diez may not have the best taste in interior design, he’s a master of the best tastes of Guadalajara.
My longterm favorite Guadalajaran dish is the restaurant’s namesake birria. And though San Miguel’s Cafe Contento and a fonda in Mercado Ignacio Ramirez both serve birria, I think Birria Xalisco’s is now the gold or, looking at Birria Xalisco’s version, the golden brown standard.
Birria is one of those complicated dishes that can best be compared to the great Mexican moles. Every chef’s birria is a little different and Alejandro uses the very under-appreciated pezcueso or neck region of the lamb. In the sauce, he told me he includes “chile cascabel, chile mirasol, mejorana, oregano, pimientos, jengibre, canela and ajonjoli”, the last ingredient a word I just couldn’t translate into English until Alejandro’s wife Marisela came out of the kitchen to show me a jar of sesame seeds.
We had our birria in tacos paired with some well fried beans (yes, frijoles refritos means well fried beans not refried beans). It’s obvious that Alejandro makes his beans the traditional way. No vegetable oil substitution for him. “Manteca makes the difference”, he told me. Birria Xalisco fries their beans in good old-fashioned lard.
There are other specialties from the state that’s midway down Mexico’s Pacific coast at Birria Xalisco. You’ll find barbacoa all over San Miguel but most of the barbacoa you’ll find in San Miguel will be Queretaro style and made of lamb. Birria Xalisco uses a similar cooking style for barbacoa but uses a pig wrapped in leaves and pit roasted with hot coals.
Jalisco competes with the Yucatan for honors as to where the young pig dish, cochinita, originated; who cares on what coast it got its start as long as we can get it in the middle of the country and now at Birria Xalisco.
It was time for Alejandro to educate me again with one more treat from Guadalajara. It was a bread roll called birote salado that I’d heard of but never tasted. Alejandro brings birotes salados in frozen.
The bread is similar in look to our local bolillo but with a thicker, crunchier crust and saltier, less sugary taste. It’s more like a French baguette and how could anyone complain with that comparison. In Jalisco, the consistency is much better than bolillos “for spreading with beans or pork and soaking in tomato chile sauce” Alejandro told me. The finished dish is called torta ahogada, literally drowned sandwich.
There was little room but still a big desire for dessert and it was time for Alejandro Hernandez Diez to whiz me one last time with a delicacy from his home state.
He insisted, “You must have jericallas.”
I insisted, “You must tell me what jericallas is”.
Alejandro’s answer came in a glass bowl filled with a sunshine yellow cream and a golden brown crust.
“Flan”, I said.
“Not flan”, Alejandro said.
“Like flan”, I said.
“Not like flan”, said Alejandro, “better than flan, jericallas.”
The custard was a little more dense than flan, a little more like creme brulee. Alejandro told me it was made of milk, vanilla, cinnamon and “too many eggs”. There’s such a thing as too many eggs?
I appreciate restaurants that stick to a theme, that stick to a local cuisine and there may be no restaurant in this town that sticks to their regional guns better than Birria Xalisco.
I like restauranteurs who know that their prime purpose is to please everyone who walks in their door and make sure they walk away with a belly full of food and a head full of fond memories.
That’s what happened to me at Birria Xalisco.
Birria Xalisco is located at Salida a Celaya #81 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.