Not far from the bustle of downtown Santa Ana exists Dulceria El Caracol. And hidden inside that candy shop, there’s a restaurant called La Super Birria. Though you can browse Dulceria El Caracol’s store aisles to grab a few Mexican sweets, party supplies and a piñata, it’s the birria business that’s slowly and inevitably taking over the real estate. The plastic picnic tables set up in rows by the owner now take up more than half of the shop’s floor space.
Since I first wrote about it last December, and as word has spread, the birria has become the main attraction here—not in spite of the tucked-away location and lack of signage, but because of it. You walk into the place feeling as though you’ve found El Dorado in the jungle. The treasure at La Super Birria is the birria itself. The dish is the kind of home-style bowl of food that an abuelita in a housedress would make on Easter Sunday.
This is verified when you see that La Super Birria is staffed almost exclusively by middle-aged women, undoubtedly with a few grandmothers among them. Though few speak English, if it looks as though you’re going to be sharing your meal, one of them will offer an extra empty bowl. And if you ask for a box for the leftovers, she’ll take the food and pack it for you—because, well, that’s just what a grandma would do.
The rest of the time, these ladies are busy making everything from scratch, even the tortillas. Stationed next to the cash register, one woman flattens balls of masa into disks under the pressure of a hand-pressed vice, one after the other. She then plops them down onto a hot griddle. It only takes a minute for the tortillas to puff up like whoopee cushions.
As soon as they’re ready, she stacks the hot, steaming tortillas in a lidded container, which is brought out with your bowl of birria. You could conceivably take a piece of meat and tuck it inside the fold, or just dip the tortilla into the brick-red soup. Either way, you’re eating one of the thickest, best examples of tortillas in Santa Ana—perhaps better than the one that forms the base of Alebrije’s tacos acorazados a couple of blocks down.
Soft but also chewy, light but also hearty, these tortillas possess such a pure corn flavor that they make you think of summer in the countryside. And as oyster crackers are to clam chowder, they’re the perfect foil and accompaniment to the spicy, beefy nectar of the birria de res—a stew with meat so tender it verges on collapse. Words are insufficient to describe how soft the meat is. And where the beef isn’t falling apart, there are just enough bits of fat left behind that it makes you shudder with delight when you encounter one.
If you don’t want to commit to a full bowl of birria, you can sample just the broth, which is labeled on the menu as consomé. Spicy from roasted-chile paste and lip-smacking from the beef juices, the soup, which comes in a Styrofoam cup, is an entirely different creature than the one I had at Anaheim’s Mr. Taco Nice a few months ago. That version had a half-inch of grease floating on top. By comparison, La Super Birria’s version is practically health food, with nary a drop of grease. I’m not sure if this is indicative of birrias from Sahuayo, Michoacan, where owner Edgar Navarrete’s family is from, but if it is, I think I prefer this style to any other.
When you do order the birria, in addition to the homemade tortillas, you’re given a tray of condiments that include diced red onions, cilantro, lime and a homemade salsa that can set your head ablaze. Although it might seem as though you’re gilding the lily, you want to add some of the onions and cilantro to brighten and elevate the dish even further.
There’s a wonderful queso-birria that can be ordered à la carte or part of a so-called “Birria Tour,” for which it’s paired with a red taco, a taco dorado and a cup of consomé. The red taco and taco dorado are nearly indistinguishable, but the queso-birria is a different beast. Not only is it filled with a great deal more of the birria meat than the other two, but it also stretches decadently with cheese. And when you eat this giant thing, sinking your teeth into the pillow-sized half-moon made from the same homemade tortillas you saw earlier, you feel small as well as giddy—like a kid in a candy store . . . that also happens to produce the best birria in OC.
La Super Birria, 1041 W. First St., Santa Ana, (657) 245-3810. Open daily, 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Birria, $10.89; queso-birria, $4; tacos, $2.25-$2.99. No alcohol.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.