BETHANY — Let's get right to the point: Birrieria Diaz, 6700 NW 39 Expressway, is among my 10 favorite places to eat in the metro area.
Will it be yours? I can't say. But first some context about my palate: I grew up surrounded by Hispanic culture, from early years living minutes from the border in Chula Vista, Calif., to the bulk of my youth spent in Austin, Texas, supported by a family business heavily populated by Hispanic employees. Trips to Tijuana for my family then are no different from trips to Norman for my family now.
If comfort food is meat and potatoes with biscuits and gravy, I'll have the carne guisada con papas with tortillas and salsa fresca. I love food from every culture. I love seasonal food grown as close to me as possible. That's why I grow anywhere from six to 12 varieties of chiles in my backyard every year.
As for what the Diaz family brought to this market from Aguascalientes, Mexico, by way of Pomona, Calif., it hits me in my inner kindergartner. The restaurant opened in January 2011. I've been there, conservatively, 20 times. On my last trip, dining with my son, I ordered the Bistec en Chile Rojo. After one bite, I insisted my son stop eating his taqueria-style tacos and taste my dish.
Waiting until the beef slathered in a rich sauce containing tons of garlic, a little tomatillo and plenty of rehydrated red chile passed over his palate, I said to him, “The flavor in your mouth right now is the flavor that sparked my love of food.”
When I was 5, we lived next door to a Puerto Rican family named Garcia. My mother was best friends with the lady of the house, whose name was Felicita — Feline for short. Feline routinely baby-sat me while my mother ran errands. One day, she made me lunch and the direction of my life changed forever.
She made a simple little thin-cut steak practically quaking from garlic influence. It had a thin orange sauce. I remember feeling flashes of guilt and woe over leaving that sauce on the plate to die alone awash in Palmolive suds. When I got home, I told my mother, “You need to make food like Feline makes.”
Birrieria Diaz makes food like Feline made then, and I'm sure makes to this day.
And they do it not only with daily specials such as the Bistec en Chile Rojo, but with the dish for which the restaurant is named: birria.
Birria is traditionally made in Mexico of goat, pit-roasted until fork tender and then baptized in a sauce of onions, garlic, chile and a little tomato and/or tomatillo. Goat doesn't go over so big north of the border, so when Juan Diaz Sr. started making birria out of his garage in Pomona, he chose lamb.
His son Juan Carlos Diaz said the family cleared the garage out, installed a kitchen and sold four lambs worth of birria per day. They considered opening a restaurant but prices in California were prohibitive.
Socorro Diaz, wife to Juan Sr. and mother to Junior, had family living in Oklahoma City whom the family visited periodically. To our good fortune, the Diaz family moved here and Juan Sr. started out cooking at Abel's Mexican Restaurant, which happens to be the best Mexican Restaurant in the city in my opinion. Eventually, Juan and family set up shop on the corner of NW 39 Expressway and College Avenue to do his specialty dish.
They didn't spend a bunch of money on fancy tables or chairs, and the wait staff is all family and friends. Soft drinks come in cans or bottles imported from Mexico. Service is friendly and informative, prices are budget-friendly. The biggest investment the family has made is in flavor.
The birria they serve at their “birrieria” is served in either lamb or beef. It is served with an army of condiments, including red onions mixed with minced habanero, cilantro, fried and salted chiles de arbol, radish slices, white onions, and lime quarters. It also comes with two red salsas and one green. Birria is to be eaten with fresh, homemade corn tortillas — some steamed, some fried. You may order beans and rice, but then that would get in the way of how much birria you would have room for, which would be a shame. The birria is served in small, medium and large portions. It's hard to imagine taking any home regardless the size as sopping and picking are irresistible.
Since the restaurant opened, the menu has evolved. The Diaz family did eventually relent and start doing free queso, which Juan Jr. says is made fresh daily and never from a can. They also added street tacos, enchiladas, chile rellenos and tamales.
The enchiladas are not Tex-Mex, they are more in line with what you'd get if you ordered enchiladas in Mexico. They are rolled, which is a conceit more common here than there, but they do not come stuffed with melted cheese and onions and aren't covered in a flour-laden Texas chili derivative. They are stuffed instead with briny Queso Freso and onions and served with red or green sauce with no meat and topped with more crumbled Queso Fresco. I like them as a side to go with the birria. However, if you want to add beef or chicken, the Diaz family will happily do so. Tacos come in basic beef, and chicken but also offer the pork with red chile and pineapple tacos al pastor and offer more exotic fillings like lengua (tongue) and beef cheek.
Another specialty is the unique pozole (or posole if you wish), which is a pork and hominy stew. In New Mexico, red chile is the basis for the broth, but at Birrieria Diaz it is based on avocado. And it is spectacular.
I love eating at Birrieria Diaz because no two bites can be the same or every bite can be exactly the same. It is intrinsically family-style dining and ferociously authentic Mexican food. This is not to say I don't love some Tex-Mex. I will throw down on a combination plate or sizzling fajitas from Chuy's or the like pretty much whenever you're ready.
But sometimes I want food like Feline used to make, and that's when I go to Birrieria Diaz.
Birrieria Diaz is open daily, and now the family owns Jugo Xpress around the corner, which specializes in fresh fruit and smoothies. For more information, call 603-1304.