“What brought you in to the restaurant?”, said the well-dressed woman at the doorway to the kitchen. “Was it the sign? I hope it was the sign.”
Aaah, the power of advertising. Some bold, all upper-case typography. Wrapped inside a sunshine-colored border. And those two words in the copy: Birria and ramen. Those two dishes will get this old dog’s glands salivating. The sign at the entrance to Birrieria Jonacho was like a rare-earth magnet, dragging me by the scruff of my neck off the sidewalk.
“Que recomiendas?”, I asked the not only well-dressed but very sophisticated-looking woman.
“The birriamen”, she replied. “You should have the birriamen.”
Birria and ramen. West meets East. Two of the world’s great dishes. Almost impossible to find either one in my part of Mexico. And there they were united together, I presumed, in one bowl. Well, San Miguel is Mexico’s wedding capital.
Birria. It’s hard to walk six blocks in Guadalajara without seeing a place that sells it. In Mexico City, La Polar has been filling bowls with it for 85 years. But in Centro, in San Miguel de Allende, it’s been very hard to find. There’s always been that fonda in Ignacio Ramirez Market that has it on their sign but never, it seems, in their kitchen. There is Alejandro at Birria Xalisco on one side and then the other of Salida a Celaya but that’s a healthy hike when you’re sitting in San Miguel’s jardin.
Birria isn’t a particularly sophisticated dish. Simply a hearty and spicy meat stew. But there definitely is complexity to the flavors. Like the other two of Mexico’s holy trinity of meat stews, menudo and pozole, birria had its beginnings in the state of Jalisco.
A vendor at San Miguel’s Tuesday market told me that if I went to Jalisco and particularly if I went to Guadalajara, the capital of Jalisco, I should watch for restaurants with a pair of goat horns or a goat’s head on a pole.
The icon apparently has two meanings. The obvious being that goat meat and, in particular, birria is being sold in the restaurant. The other implication is that birria will, if you’ll excuse the expression, make you horny.
The origin of the dish is one of the better folk tales of Mexico. In Celebrating Latin Folklore, Maria Herrera Sobek says, “…legend has it, the dish was invented by accident during the eruption of a volcano, when a shepherd was forced to abandon his goats in a cave only to return a few days later to find that the heat of the lava and the steam from the humidity in the cave had cooked them so perfectly leaving the meat tender and the skin crunchy. In face of this tragedy, he had the idea of collecting the meat and adding some hot sauce, thus creating the dish.”
Birrieria Jonacho’s birria (and birriamen) isn’t made from goat. I suspect hardly any of the birria in Mexico is made any longer from goat. Birrieria Jonacho’s birria (geez that’s a mouthful for a guy who can’t roll his rrrrrrrrrrrs) is made from beef…but, I discovered after I’d eaten it, not quite all beef.
I mentioned the sophisticated lady I met when I ventured down the long lane from Calle Hernandez Macias to Hotel Petra and entered the restaurant. I was now sat in the hotel’s garden, pondering how many other San Miguel restaurants have a lawn, when I ordered a diet cola. We then pondered why the Coca Cola Bottling Co. has a Coca Lite, a Coke Zero, and a Cola Sin Azucar. Neither of us had a good answer and we weren’t sure the Coca Cola Bottling Co. had either. Despite our language differences, I realized how blessed this woman obviously was at charming the patrons of a restaurant.
The birria was as birria should be. A deep intensity to the broth with flavors that drive you crazy guessing what vegetables, what spices, what chiles were making their contributions. Yes, there’s cinnamon, there’s allspice, there are cloves, there’s…it was impossible to guess what else. The meat in a birria should be fall-apart and this was. All beef, I thought, probably shank and possibly oxtail.
Birriamen looked like birria except it had noodles in it. They were dried not fresh. They were OK but nothing special. I’m guessing this was the ramen part of birriamen. Birria can often be way too much meat, can be desperately seeking some starch, so for that reason I did welcome the noodles.
The sophisticated lady had brought a bunch of condiments to the table. I added the cilantro and the onions. Nice. I then thought maybe it could use a little more heat. About four drops of the red sauce was about three too many but a lesson learned. On second thought, Birreria Jonacho doesn’t need any more heat.
I walked back up from the garden to the dining room to settle my bill and put my investigative reporter hat on. The sophisticated lady had a sophisticated name to match, Livier Baéz. I asked her where she learned to make such good birria.
“It’s my brother’s recipe”, said Livier, “My brother’s a chef, a TV chef in Mexico. This is one of his specialties. It was his idea that I open Birreria Jonacho.”
Livier listed some of the ingredients. The canela, the clavos, and the hoja santa; the pasilla and puya chiles. She then lifted the lid from the giant cauldron so I could inhale the fragrance.
“It takes seven hours on a low heat to cook the beef and the lamb”, said Livier.
“Lamb?”, I inquired.
“Yes, there’s also lamb”, she replied.
There’s a warm glow you get from birria but I realized as I walked out to the street that the food wasn’t the only reason I was feeling so good. It was the graciousness, the charm of Livier Baéz that was also going to bring me back for the birriaramen.
Birreria Jonacho isn’t a destination restaurant; it’s not a let’s all get together on Saturday night and go there kind of place. Birreria Jonacho is a comida rapida alternative, a good alternative to the taco cart, a perfect place to go when you’ve got the late morning or late afternoon munchies.
Birreria Jonacho is located in Hotel Petra at Hernandez Macias #43 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. The restaurant is open from Wednesday to Sunday, 10:00 am to 6:00 pm.
A TASTY POSTSCRIPT: When I got home, I googled Livier Baéz’ brother, Antonio de Livier and wow. The chef owns a small chain of restaurants in Mexico City called Animo. He may even have invented birriamen. If you want to make his birria at home, or want to watch him make it, you can do it here: