Birria—Mexican goat stew—is a rare treat in New York City, a blip on our culinary radar worth hunting down. So when we spotted the dish ($10, weekends only) on the menu at Real Azteca, whose heaping enchiladas michoacanas we featured on Bronx Eats two weeks ago, we knew we would have to investigate. It is, after all, what we believe to be the only regularly available bowl available in the borough.
Once cooked in a pit like barbacoa, birria is often, but not exclusively, made with goat through several methods. It can be marinated in adobo sauce, with guajillo and ancho chilies, and then cooked with a marginal amount of liquid, or simmered in a broth made with adobo ingredients. At Chicago's beloved Birreria Zarazoga, it is made in the tatemada style: steamed or simmered and then re-dressed with a tomato consomme and roasted.
In Celebrating Latino Folklore, Rafael Hernandez writes that the dish is so central to the identity of the people of Guadalajara, and Jalisco more broadly, that it is promoted through festivals like the Feria de la Birria. But birria is not the exclusive domain of Jalisco. Legend has it, Hernandez writes, that it was invented in the state of Colima and in nearby Zacatecas, where it was made of mutton served dry with consomme on the side. The owners of Real Azteca don't come from any of these places; they hail from the neighboring state of Michoacan.
The birria at Real Azteca is served as a thin soup, stained the color of red clay by the chilies, with large chunks of goat meat for the taking. A basket of limp tortillas comes on the side, along with the typical garnishes of cilantro, onion, and lime wedges. The former adds a handy brightness, a sour punch that comes on strong towards the end of your sip.
I've previously declared my love for stocks and soups made from goat, for their depth and savoriness, and this one is typically rich and lip-smacking. But it lacks a certain something; the alluring color suggests fireworks, but you don't feel astounded. The heat from the chilies is enjoyably mellow, more of a lull than a burn, but the soup's flavor is not particularly complex. Whatever spices the kitchen uses are more or less undetectable. Cooked in the liquid its served in, the meat itself is tender if a little underseasoned, livened up with a touch of salsa verde.
Real Azteca's birria is by no means stellar, but considering the near absence of the dish from New York's culinary landscape—the closest regularly available alternative we know of is in Sunset Park—it's a recommendable introduction. The soup is also one of the better dishes we've yet to find in a corner of the borough that's starved for good eats. But if you've got an unquenchable hankering for goat soup, we'd strongly recommend you head a few stops south to Tamales Ebenezer. There they sell a consomme de chivo that is one of our favorite goat dishes in the city, one that is altogether richer, deeper, and more complex than this birria.