Birriería y Taquería El Alex
Stew on this
There’s one reason to go to El Alex, on Fourth Street just south of I-40. It’s a bowl of soup. And it’s good enough to merit the trip on its own.
As some of the exterior signage suggests, Alex is a birriería, which is to birria (stew) what a taquería is to tacos. The list of house specialties includes one entry: the plato de birria estilo Zacatecas.
Birria is made with red chile and meat, which varies according to where it’s prepared. Often it’s goat or sheep. Iguana is not uncommon in the Jalisco and Colima regions. In Zacatecas, where the birria at El Alex traces its lineage, beef is common in the birria, and that’s probably the kind of meat you’ll find at El Alex. I tried to find out for sure, but after I introduced myself over the phone in clumsy Spanish, they refused to talk to me. They probably thought I was selling something.
Whatever the meat is, it’s cooked to the point of creaminess and floats in a thin, red broth. The strands hold together loosely as sheets, sometimes attached to decadent globs of fat. The red broth packs enough heat to make you sweat but not suffer. A side of halved limes is at the ready for squeezing, and a stack of corn tortillas is meant to wrap the meat before taking a dip into the broth.
Joining the meat are cilantro and chopped onion, added to the birria at serving time. After briefly cooking in the hot broth, the onion maintains the bite and aroma of raw but also assumes the texture and sweetness of cooked, creating a vivid contrast against the red heat and the soft meat. Though few, the other ingredients are equally load-bearing. Drops of citrus push the soup into a pho-like dimension. It’s reminiscent of the classic Asian flavor equation of acid, sour, sweet, chile and fat, with herbiness and earthy flavors encircling. By the time a stray piece of fat wilts in the hot, tart broth inside your mouth, you’re happily in the birria section of a street market somewhere in Zacatecas. Sometime after you leave El Alex’s lonely street corner, you’ll notice how spicy it was as your head continues to simmer. Days later you’ll still be thinking of it.
By the time a stray piece of fat wilts in the hot, tart broth inside your mouth, you’re happily in the birria section of a street market somewhere in Zacatecas.
After eating my way through most of the small menu, I can’t recommend anything else as highly as the birria. The small, simply appointed dining room is dominated by two newly upholstered wraparound booths, above which a television runs in Spanish. Fresh, thin chips and homemade salsa, with jalapeño flavor and creeping heat, are ferried to your table immediately. The tacos are pretty good—the tripa (tripe) is crispy, the buche (pork esophagus or stomach) tastes like it’s batter-fried, and the asado is perfectly adequate. The enchiladas and and shrimp cocktail I ordered were far less impressive, and my chicharrón burrito had the kind of soggy bits that seemed like a bag of fried pork rinds was dumped into salsa verde.
But none of that matters if you’re there for the birria. If you are, then you will leave happy. And if you aren’t ordering it, well, you should be.
The Alibi Recommends:
Plato de birria estilo Zacatecas
1900 Fourth Street NW, 247-2199
Price range: The birria house specialty is $5.99. Some of the shrimp dishes hit $9.
Hours: Monday, Wednesday and Thursday 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Tuesday 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Friday 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Ambience: Simple and friendly (just don’t tell them you’re from the Alibi in poor Spanish)
Vegetarian options: Chile rellenos, chips and salsa