Nothing captures the florid heart of Fruitvale like the taste of goat-meat birria. Heady, with an edge of something like turpentine, goat has volatile oils every bit as pungent as rosemary branches, but with a peculiarly sweaty, earthy tang. Jalisco-style birria can be thin and brothy, or it can have a chile-thickened, bisquelike consistency. You can score the latter style at Cinco de Mayo, a birrieria and neveria (ice cream shop) at the intersection of High Street and International Boulevard. There, in a corner of the roiling Highland Square strip mall, a daily throng of hookers and high school students trawls for candy, little snacks, and stewy birria.
On Mexico's great central plain, birria is a form of barbacoa: joints of goat sprinkled with sea salt, bracketed with roasted leaves of the maguey plant, and baked slow in huge clay pots. It's a weekend dish, on account of the long cooking. But in Jalisco, the mountainous state that stair-steps from the high plain down to the Pacific, birria is a soup-stew goat meat and chile-spiked broth served in deep bowls. Here in the Fruitvale district, a neighborhood with deep connections to Jalisco, it's the same.
Jose Garcia, Cinco de Mayo's owner, is like a cheerful, gray-haired uncle presiding over the perpetual scrum in this former Subway sandwich shop, a space with a scuffed tile floor and searing yellow Formica. On a recent weekday afternoon, three teenage boys ogled an obvious working girl. Her tiny skirt, cut like a Roman legionnaire's kilt, was a pale, milky cinnamon the exact shade of the fermented corn drink Garcia mixes up while you're waiting for your birria to cook.
Called tejuino, the corn concoction ferments in a mixing bowl above the pilot on Cinco de Mayo's gas range: a mash of piloncillo (molasses-y raw sugar), water, and masa (tortilla dough). To order, Garcia scoops crushed ice into a glass and throws in a pinch of big-crystal salt and a squeeze of lime from a hinged metal squeezer. He crushes everything together briefly before adding the corn liquid sour and viscous, with the spritz of uncontrolled fermentation and a heady edge of rot. A Jalisco specialty, and good for the digestion, Garcia said in Spanish.
His birria can be just as heady. The thickish broth, the color of new roof tiles, is surrounded a big clump of boneless, shredded goat meat. Like Vietnamese pho, unadorned birria begs for doctoring: You season it to your own liking from the accompanying plate of lime halves, chopped cilantro, minced onion, and blistering salsa the one here is made from chiles de arbol.
Today's birria was inedibly salty. Too bad, since the thick, handmade tortillas were killer, and the goat itself was soft and lush beneath its searing salinity we could sense how flavorful the thick broth would have been. In fact, on an earlier visit the salt balanced with the bite of chiles, the piquancy of the goat, and the muffled punch of vinegar in the broth. But this latest batch revealed a truth about small restaurants: As essentially the outgrowths of home kitchens, they tend to lack consistency. When we told Garcia why we'd failed to swallow more than a few bites, he looked disappointed and scolded his cook from where he was standing at our table. She flashed a look every bit as withering as the burn of salt on our lips.
You should expect more consistency from a place where the owner flaunts her cooking. Ana Rosa Leon's El Centenario has the shadow name: Restaurant y Cenaduria de Ana Rosa Ana Rosa's restaurant and supper place. On a recent Saturday afternoon, her narrow, high-ceilinged supper place rang with a full-throated version of "My Way," belted out in Spanish by two mariachis. On banquettes like old car bench seats, young guys with freshly barbered necks, backward baseball caps, and patchy, wannabe mustaches hunched over bowls of birria.
The taste of goat in Leon's birria was just as full-throated as the singing. Actually, Leon uses a mixture of beef and goat the latter still attached to bone and the soup tends to be thin and brothy. On a recent visit a delicate aureole of orange grease ringed the bowl, and pieces of goat meat were sheathed in thin layers of cream-colored fat. Torn off its bones into thick tortillas, the goat set off a flavor bomb in our mouths. The taste-trapping fat gave the meat an intensity, like eucalyptus, and the chile-laced broth picked up the flavor of toasted Mexican oregano, a fusion of mint and smoldering cannabis. It was fantastic.
Up the street at Otaez, we tasted a pure-goat version in a similarly brothy style that was almost as good. Oven-browning the meat before serving was an inspired touch. Traditionally, the chef simply steams goat pieces for hours. Here, the caramelization that resulted from browning added depth to the birria's flavors.
Across from Cinco de Mayo, under the green-and-white tile arches of a former Taco Bell, the stewy, bisquelike version at Taqueria Zamorano was probably the most satisfying birria we tasted. (The same version is available at its sister place, El Taco Zamorano restaurant at 4032 Foothill Boulevard.) The brick-colored broth had a silky viscosity, and a good balance of salt, acidity, chile burn, and barnyard intensity. The gray-brown meat was soft and plush and still partly on the bone: a fat loin section bristling with curving ribs, a length of shank with a heart of dark, sandpapery marrow. And Zamorano's thick, handmade tortillas had a maize-y intensity: chewy, with brown-black flecks of corn endosperm in the faintly bubbly surface. In the afternoon throng of kids in bowl cuts, guys dressed up for Sunday in pearly boots and straw cowboy hats, and a girl whose hoop earrings contained an arc of letters spelling out "SEXY," the goaty tang of birria expressed the ambient vibe like a soundtrack.