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With the July opening of Birria Catrina on Roncesvalles, co-owners and partners, Abraham Luna and Lluvia Minton, have finally fulfilled their dream of opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant devoted to all things birria.
For those out of the loop, birria is a chili-spiked stew that originated in the Mexican state of Jalisco. The robust dish traces its origins to the 16th-century arrival of the Spanish conquistadores. Among the provisions with which they’d set sail from the Old World were some live goats who proliferated at an astonishing rate in the New World. A nourishing solution to the sudden overabundance of goats was to slow-cook the tough but flavourful meat into a succulent stew.
Since then, birria recipes have proliferated with as much fervour as those original goats. Over time, numerous additions and substitutions have been made, reflecting changing tastes, availability of ingredients and cooks’ whims. It wasn’t until the 2010s, however, that two inspired Mexican-American teens from Los Angeles created the birria taco.
Unlike traditional tacos, birria tacos make use of tortillas. The tortillas are dipped in the layer of fat that floats atop the birria before being tossed on a grill, ensuring a crispy exterior. This is a crispness that never wanes. Not when stuffed with the juicy shredded meat from the stew. Not even when ceremoniously dunked into the pungent, red-tinged birria broth.
This multiflavoured, multitextured, multicoloured culinary invention was multisensory enough to take the real -- and digital -- world by storm. From L.A., the birria taco wave quickly swept across North America. Nonetheless, in Toronto, of 2020, Luna and Minton were birria pioneers when, at the dawn of the pandemic, they opened the original Birria Catrina, a takeout spot strategically located at 214 Augusta Avenue, in Kensington Market.
Prior to quitting their day jobs, the couple had perfected their own signature birria taco based on a Luna family recipe, which they fine-tuned with the help of considerable research and taste-testing. The resulting taco is stuffed with slow-cooked halal beef along with cheese, cilantro and onions. It proved so popular that, soon after, they opened a second location at the World Food Market at Yonge and Dundas.
Since then, birria tacos have taken off in Toronto; even celebrity chef Matty Matheson’s Fonda Balam began life as the pop-up Birria Balam. However, amid the excess of offerings, Birria Catrina is the only place whose menu is exclusively devoted to all things birria.
At the new Roncy restaurant, in addition to birria tacos and birria itself (served in piping hot bowls), you can also dig into birria quesadillas, birria pizzadillas, thick sandwich-like birria tortas and -- for serious fusion-istas -- birria ramen. A variety of combinations of plates allow you to mix and match various birrias. To quench your thirst, there are non-alc drinks such as Mexican Coca Cola and fruit-flavoured Jarritos Mexican soda.
Despite all the social media-fueled hype surrounding birria tacos, Luna and Minton believe birria's intrinsic and inimitable characteristics are responsible for its success. In a recent interview with Now, Minton confessed that “Latin people love it because it feels like home. Canadian people love it because when the weather is cold, you drink the stew and you get warm inside.”
Birria Catrina is located at 131 Roncesvalles Avenue and is open daily from 12 to 10 p.m.