Home / Blog / Santa Rosa food truck owner took a chance on birria and it changed everything

Santa Rosa food truck owner took a chance on birria and it changed everything

May 21, 2024May 21, 2024

Restaurant: 1630 Sebastopol Rd., Santa Rosa; (707) 701-1176

Food truck: 921 Sebastopol Rd., Santa Rosa; (707) 393-7900

Tuesday–Saturday, 10 a.m.–10 p.m.; Sunday, 9 a.m.–9 p.m.; Closed Monday

Restaurants change their menus all the time, sometimes in line with what’s popular or new.

But when Gustavo Cazares decided several years ago to focus his taco truck’s menu on birria, it wasn’t to catch the wave of an emerging food trend. It was a business decision that profoundly transformed his family’s life.

In the kitchen of Jalapeno Mexican Grill, the restaurant he opened two years ago on Sebastopol Road in Santa Rosa’s Roseland neighborhood, Cazares shared his basic recipe and method for making birria. His son Jonny translated for his father, who speaks English but feels more comfortable expressing himself in Spanish.

Birria, a dish common in the Mexican state of Jalisco, is traditionally made with goat, lamb, mutton or whatever meat is plentiful. In the U.S., beef is typically the meat of choice. It’s like a pot roast, but with the addition of a puree of chiles and spices that seasons the meat and its resulting broth. Translated, birria colloquially means “mess,” which may refer to the appearance of the meat that shreds easily after cooking a few hours low and slow.

Cazares served birria from his food truck off and on starting in 2018, so he already had the recipe dialed in when the dish, and more specifically quesabirria — a taco stuffed with birria and cheese, exploded in popularity in 2020, making its way from Tijuana and Los Angeles to the Bay Area.

By then, Cazares and his sons, Gustavo Jr. and Jonny, had been serving quesabirra to a legion of fans who, as shown in an Instagram video, often lined up by the hundreds for a taste of red-tinged tacos, tortas and mulitas (meat and cheese sandwiched between two tortillas instead of just one folded over).

A post shared by Jalapeño Mexican Grill (@jalapenomexicangrills)

Their first day out, they quickly sold through 100 pounds of birria. They doubled, then tripled their supply as word got out about their truck parked in front of a gas station on Gravenstein Highway in Sebastopol. They continued to sell out, forcing them to turn away the throngs of customers who lined up, masked, on social distancing dots. It would be enough to stress out any vendor, but not Cazares.

“Every time I looked out the window, I was thanking God for the opportunity. It was the blessing I was looking for,” Cazares said.

Part of quesabirria’s appeal is its vermilion hue. Cazares demonstrated how to make them, first dipping corn tortillas into the chile-infused fat skimmed from the meat broth and placing them on a flat-top stove to fry, then topping them generously with birria and cheese. He folded the tortillas over and continued frying them and basting occasionally with the fat until they were perfectly balanced between soft and crisp.

Another appealing feature is the rich spiced broth, or consommé, often ordered alongside to dunk the tacos in or just to sip on. It’s also, as the Cazares family discovered, a great base for ramen, which they added to their menu in May 2020, followed a month later by birria pizza made on flour tortillas.

As their menu offerings grew, so did their fan base. With each taco, burrito and bowl of ramen they sold, the family’s fortune changed.

Cazares spent his young life in Mexico City and moved to Santa Rosa when he was 13.

“I came to Santa Rosa for a vacation and spent two to three months (visiting my older brothers),” he said. “When it was time to go back, I wanted to stay here rather than go back home to school.”

As a teen, he ran a food truck with his brothers and later became the head chef at his sister’s restaurant, La Fondita. In 2017, he decided to strike out on his own. He started his food truck, serving a standard menu with dishes like carne asada, carnitas and al pastor before making the fateful decision to give birria a try.

As Jonny translated for his father, both father and son grew emotional.

“He said he feels very blessed,” said Jonny, fighting back tears. “The time where he started the business, we were actually living in the garage. We lived two years in the garage. Thanks to everything, just recently last year, he bought a house.”

Their eventual success didn’t come without its own challenges. The crowds of people who showed up for a taste of their quesabirria attracted unwanted attention from Sonoma County Sheriff’s deputies, responding to complaints about the number of people gathered and customers parking at nearby businesses.

“They came and asked for a permit, so my dad showed our permits,” Cazares Jr. said. “We felt like they were trying to find every little way to bring us down.”

Rather than getting angry or discouraged by their encounters with the sheriff’s department, they aimed higher.

“It inspired us to expand and not have any issues with the law,” Cazares Jr. said. “It created a fire in our hearts.”

They moved the truck to a more permanent location on Sebastopol Road in front of the Roseland Gas Mart. One night in December 2020, it caught fire. The truck was a total loss.

At the time, they were using their current restaurant space as a prep kitchen for the truck, so they quickly sprang into action.

“In 24 hours, we opened the restaurant,” Jonny said. “All the employees, we fixed up the place and were in the next day.”

They’ve since replaced the food truck, too, and have grown from just the three people to a business with 13 employees.

Without a food truck limiting what he could serve, Cazares has been able to unleash his creativity and expand his menu. Birria is the focus — he recently added birria macaroni and cheese.

“He had that idea yesterday, and we’re selling it today,” Jonny said. “My dad, if he has an idea, it won’t leave his head until he does it.”

Cazares’ menu offers plenty of inspiration for those who want to make their own birria. While it’s typically served on weekends or special occasions because of the long cooking time, birria is one of those foods that lends itself well to weeknight leftovers — folded into a quesadilla, or a maybe a birria grilled cheese.

Cazares said anyone should give it a try and use their imagination.

“There’s no rules in the kitchen,” he said. “You can create your own flavor.”

This recipe is Gustavo Cazares’ basic recipe and method, although his chile sauce at his restaurant contains a few other “secret ingredients.” Common additions to the sauce are chocolate, a splash of cider vinegar or chipotle en adobo.

Makes 8-10 servings

4-5 pounds boneless beef chuck steak or roast

1 onion, cut into large dice


For sauce

3-4 bay leaves

1 teaspoon Mexican oregano

½ teaspoon peppercorns

½ teaspoon cumin seeds

2 cloves of garlic

8-10 guajillo chiles, stems and seeds removed

1 cinnamon stick

To serve:

1 white onion, finely diced

1 bunch of cilantro, chopped

4-5 limes


In a large heavy-bottom stock pot, add beef and onion. Add enough water to come up almost to the top of the beef, but not quite enough to cover it. Add several healthy pinches of salt to the water and bring to a boil. Turn the heat back to a simmer, cover and let cook while you make the sauce.

Add all the sauce ingredients to a small saucepan. Add a 1 to 2 cups of water, just enough to cover the chiles, and bring to a boil. Turn off the heat, cover with a lid and let sit for 20 to 30 minutes, until the chiles are softened.

Remove the bay leaves and cinnamon stick from the pan and pour the remaining contents into a blender. Blend until smooth. For a smoother, more consistent sauce, pour this mixture through a fine-mesh strainer.

After the beef has been cooking for an hour, add the chile sauce to the pot and continue to cook, approximately 3 hours longer or until the meat is falling apart and can be shredded easily with a fork.

Remove the meat from the pot to a large bowl or casserole dish. When cool enough to handle, use your fingers to pull apart the meat. If you prefer it more finely shredded, for tacos, use two forks to pull it apart instead. Once meat is shredded, add a ladle full of the cooking liquid if it needs some moisture, then cover until ready to serve. The meat also can be refrigerated, covered in foil and reheated in the oven the next day at 350 degrees.

Using a large spoon or ladle, scoop as much clear liquid fat off the surface of the meat cooking liquid as you can and remove it to a bowl or large measuring cup. Keep this fat for dipping tortillas for quesabirria or bread for tortas. The liquid left behind after skimming the pot is the consommé.

To serve birria as a stew, place a generous portion of the shredded meat in a serving bowl. Ladle 1 to 2 cups of the consommé over it. Top with diced white onion, cilantro and quartered limes. Serve with a salsa of your choice, though a spicy salsa made with chiles de arbol is most common.

Makes 6-8 servings

1 pound elbow macaroni, medium shells, or cellentani (corkscrew) pasta

2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons flour

½ teaspoon mustard powder

¼ teaspoon garlic powder

¼ teaspoon onion powder

½ teaspoon salt

Freshly ground black pepper

3 cups whole milk

5 ounces cheddar cheese, grated

4 ounces mozzarella, grated

½ cup grated Parmesan cheese

4 cups birria meat, warmed

Bring a large pot of water to a boil, add 2 large pinches of salt (approximately a tablespoon) and add the dried pasta. Cook according to package directions, until just tender, then drain.

Return pot to stove and melt the butter over medium heat. Whisk in the flour and spices and cook for 1 minute, until flour is well incorporated. Add milk, a little at a time, whisking constantly to keep lumps from forming. Cook, stirring often, until the milk mixture comes just to a boil and begins to thicken. Cook about 30 seconds longer, then remove from heat and stir in the grated cheeses until they’ve melted. Add drained pasta and combine gently. Taste and adjust for seasoning, if necessary.

Put ½ cup of birria meat into a serving bowl and top with pasta. Top with 2 more tablespoons of meat and garnish with chopped cilantro and salsa, if desired.

Note: For a more pronounced birria flavor, try replacing ½ cup of the milk with birria consommé.

Make this dinner on a dime with leftover birria, consommé and a packet of instant ramen. It’s perfect for nights when you’re too tired to cook.

Makes 1 serving

1 packet instant ramen, seasoning packet removed

2-3 ounces leftover birria meat

2-3 cups birria consommé, warmed

2 tablespoons chopped white onion

Small handful of cilantro, chopped


Cook or soak ramen according to package directions.

Put cooked ramen and leftover birria meat in a serving bowl. Ladle over hot consommé and garnish with white onion, cilantro and salsa to taste.

You can reach Staff Writer Jennifer Graue at 707-521-5262 or [email protected].

Restaurant: 1630 Sebastopol Rd., Santa Rosa; (707) 701-1176

Food truck: 921 Sebastopol Rd., Santa Rosa; (707) 393-7900

Tuesday–Saturday, 10 a.m.–10 p.m.; Sunday, 9 a.m.–9 p.m.; Closed Monday