What Exactly Is Birria and How Did it End Up on Pizza in Queens?
Restaurant owner Vishee Mandahar explains the birria craze and the pizza he created in response to it
Dominating headlines everywhere from Portland to Atlanta to Louisville, a powerful force that originated in a foreign country that has swept across the United States over the last year or so is now surging in New York City. We’re talking, of course, about birria.
A dish made of slowly stewed chile-braised goat, beef or mutton that originated in the Mexican state of Jalisco, birria appears to have first taken hold in the NYC area via a food truck on Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights, Queens, and since spread to other boroughs, particularly Brooklyn. Often served in tacos that have been coated in the fatty juices produced during the cooking process, birria can also accompany quesadillas or tostadas. And now, thanks to Queens eatery Krave It, which has locations in Bayside and Astoria … pizza.
After first trying the tasty taco trend via the Birria-Landia truck in Jackson Heights, Krave It owner Vishee Mandahar (who co-owns the restaurant with his wife Jenna) decided he wanted to put a birria pizza on the menu alongside other out-of-the-box pies featuring toppings like fried Oreos, tater tots and General Tso’s chicken.
“I wasn’t going to claim birria pizza and then half-ass it or not do it the right way. If I’m going to do it, it’s got to be done right,” Mandahar tells InsideHook. “Lucky for me, my kitchen manager is from Mexico and knows all about birria. I started picking his brain about it day by day and researching it. At first, I was a little overwhelmed by the whole process because it takes a whole day if you want to do it the right way. But my kitchen manager’s family still lives in Mexico, so he called back home and got the exact recipe they use there. The recipe is pretty intense. There are seven or eight different chilies we have to use and you can’t find them in a regular supermarket.”
After trips to a number of local markets in different neighborhoods, Mandahar’s kitchen manager was able to find the right combination of chilies, and they then got to work perfecting the pizza using pre-cooked beef brisket and beef ribs instead of goat as the filling and fat source.
“It took us a good week to get it done right, especially the soup and the spices. Sometimes we were putting in too much spice. Sometimes it wasn’t spicy enough,” Mandahar says. “We take the dough and add the brisket and ribs together. Then we add grilled onions and queso Oaxaca, Mexican cheese, on top. We take another piece of pizza dough and put it on top to cover it. The fun part is next. We take the fat from the beef and rub it all over the pizza We drench it with fat, put a little more Queso Oaxaca on top and stick it back in the oven to let it all melt into the pizza. When it comes out, we just garnish it with cilantro and red onion. There’s dough on top, dough on the bottom and cheese and meat in the middle. We wanted it to feel just like a taco would feel, but in a pizza version. It’s literally eating a big-ass taco when you’re eating our birria pizza.”
Like birria tacos, Mandahar’s pizza is served with consommé made with the fat of the cooked beef.
“That was another process we had to make sure we had correct. The consommé is what’s most important about this whole thing,” Mandahar says. “That’s what separates the birria taco from all the other tacos. It has to be dipped in the fat and then you’ve got to have the soup to dip it in. That’s the game-changer. You’re getting all the spices out of the meat that you cooked and all the fat — then dipping into it. That’s what changes everything and makes it different than every other taco. It sticks out to people and I guess that’s why it’s so popular now.”
Popular, and not going anywhere.
“I’m very proud of this. This is probably one of the best things that I’ve done in my six years of owning this pizzeria and we’ve done some crazy stuff,” Mandahar says. “My guys get excited when it’s birria time because it brings them back to their homeland. They love doing it. And it’s had a huge demand. Every single day we sell out of it. A lot of the items we try out don’t end up on the menu. This item has become so popular that it’s on our new menu. It’s going to stay on there.”
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