In a well-appointed South Bay restaurant, tucked into a nice hotel and next door to the swank oldies nightclub called the Strand, a man in an iridescent sportcoat-- me --pours, swirls, sips from a glass of '86 Hanzell Pinot Noir, then puts it down and weeps. The restaurant critic can't taste a thing. The restaurant critic has a cold.
With a cold, a bad cold, the cold that's been going around this winter, I couldn't always taste the difference betweeen Pinot and F ino , between radicchio and mache. The subtleties of sushi were lost; the finest dim sum tasted gray. I woke up one morning startled by a dream that involved a desire for chiles, and a certain amount of nibbling goatlike on the corners of a cardboard takeout box. I took it as a sign.
I became re-obsessed by birria , Mexican roasted-goat stew--my single favorite Mexican dish--and visited five separate birrierias in a single week, two in an afternoon. Goat at least I could taste. Sometimes for days. (It's kind of like being totally colorblind, except for flamingo, cerulean and neon-sweatsock green.)
Early Christmas Eve I stumbled into Birrieria Jalisco, which is a dark, cavernous goat restaurant on the fringe of Boyle Heights. It teemed with roaming children, and was decorated with goat portraits, a mounted goat head, and many souvenirs of the goat-lover's favorite futbol team, the Guadalajara Chivas. Accordion ballads roared from the jukebox. It seemed as close to an authentic Third World experience as you could get five minutes from downtown.
And the birria was good--it's almost always good in a birria specialty restaurant--gamy and chile-red, garlicky and zapped with hot spices, chewy, fatty and filled with little bones. There were warm tortillas and hot salsa and chopped onions and cilantro to make tacos with, and limes to squeeze--Mexican health food, very salubrious. Glasses of creamy horchata , which tastes like liquid rice pudding, soothed the chiles' burn. The thin film of broth on the plate, thick as pan-drippings, was salty and goat-pungent. I suspected that Birrieria Jalisco wasn't quite in the top rank of goat restaurants, but I was happy anyway, and temporarily sniffle-free.
A couple of days later, I revisited El Parian, my very favorite (though recently reviewed) goat restaurant, and watched a young, long-haired butcher hack half a dozen fresh goat carcasses to bits near the back. (I suspect that goat-butcher must be high on the list of ultimate heavy-metal jobs.) The tortillas were fresh; the beer frosty; the goat meat crisp and wonderful and I forgot all about the pallid birria I'd hardly touched in Jack's Placita, next to the Grand Central Market, earlier that previous afternoon.
I'd discovered Birrieria Tepechi in Wilmington by accident, when dialing 411 for the address of another goat-O-rama. I was prepared to turn around and leave when I found a modern, brightly lit place with clean tables, a full menu and overstuffed booths--goat cafes tend to be as funky as the product they sell--but decided to stay when I saw a heaping bowl of goat go by. The birria here seemed sort of an upscale version, bone-free and not too strong, a little dry, dressed with a bigger helping than usual of dark toasted-chile sauce. At Tepechi, you can also get birria served dry on a plate, with the soup in a little bowl on the side, so control freaks can precisely calibrate each bite's proportion of goat, raw onion and broth.
A few miles away, on the Mexican side of Gardena, the Grand Opening banner still hangs in the window of Birrieria Tlaquepaque, right over vivid '30s-style lettering and a portrait of a gruff-looking goat. Inside, the walls are covered with murals, of women hand-patting tortillas outside in a pastoral landscape, of a goatling snarling at the butcher who is goading him toward the pot, of a sweet-looking kid surrounded by radishes, green onions, tacos, the instruments of its demise.
Tlaquepaque does serve hand-patted tortillas, which are tiny and taste like corn, and doesn't mind if you import Negro Modelo from the liquor store next door. The birria 's salt is cut nicely by lime juice; the lime juice by musky chiles, the chile by the fragrance of the meat. While slightly mushy, the goat is of good barnyard flavor, sweet and almost high. Though it is a little disarming to eat goat while surrounded by so many cute-cute paintings of its frolicking brethren.
Birrieria Jalisco, 1845 E. First St., East Los Angeles, (213) 267-8821. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Cash only. No alcohol. Goat for two, food only, about $11.
Birrieria Tepechi, 1258 Avalon Blvd., Wilmington, (213) 513-8064. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Cash only. Lot parking. Beer and wine. Goat for two, food only, about $11.
Birrieria Tlaquepaque, 818 Gardena Blvd., Gardena, (213) 532-7456. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Cash only. No alcohol. Goat for two, food only, about $9.
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