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These days, you’re unlikely to stop inside a taqueria and not find some offering of birria on the menu. The traditional Mexican dish can be enjoyed as a stew or separated into consomme and shredded meat for tacos and burritos, making it a premium option at your neighborhood taco joint. What you probably wouldn’t expect, though, is that one of the DMV’s top-rated birrierias is hidden inside a popular Korean chain.
Nestled inside a repurposed Rice Bar on 2nd Street NE in NoMa, you will find Taco de Birria; the name, initially a placeholder, leaves little doubt regarding its new food concept. However, shy of an A-frame sign outside and a menu banner inside, nothing about the location’s aesthetic has changed since early 2020, when Rice Bar sold its last bowl of bibimbap here. The recent, all too familiar pandemic brought about a unique set of challenges that forced business owners to think on their toes and adapt to new circumstances.
At the height of its operation, Rice Bar operated nine total locations, each serving its standard, fast-casual Korean fare. Upon halting operations at several restaurants, owner James Lee called on a longtime employee to discuss and strategize a new concept. “Birria is still new to this area, so we thought it would be a good idea to help us reopen,” said chef Demesio Esquivel, an employee of Rice Bar for more than a dozen years and new partner at Taco de Birria.
Only within the past few years has birria boomed on the East Coast, in large part due to social media. If you’re a foodie, you’ve almost certainly scrolled your Instagram timeline, stumbled across a viral photo of a taco getting dunked into a bowl of glistening broth, and instantly stopped. But not every restaurant goes viral on social media. When a new concept opens under difficult circumstances, can it be the savior it was intended to be?
Prior to reopening, Esquivel spent a few months refining and perfecting his birria recipe with the goal of reviving the NoMa location. He would make a trip every Sunday to meet with Lee and get his feedback on the latest version. “When I took Jim the final sample batch of birria, he said, ‘This is it,’” Esquivel recalls now. After tasting their way around town for comparison, the team of two knew they had a recipe for success.
Before you start dunking, detach yourself from the notion that Korean flavors might be incorporated into the recipe. Esquivel, who hails from Guatemala, pays homage to traditional birria, which calls for red meat to be slow-cooked for hours in broth and adobo sauce, a marinade consisting of chiles, tomatoes, onions, and an abundance of herbs and spices. Today’s popular version replaces goat or lamb with beef (birria de res) and packs a combo punch of rich, salty, acidic, and savory flavors to your taste buds. At Taco de Birria, a chicken version is also available, but red meat is the clear choice among pros.
The restaurant operates in the standard layout of most fast-casual spots: Upon entering, you are prompted to order immediately. Choose your base item before scooching down the line to add your favorite toppings and salsas. As the name suggests, tacos are the most popular option here. A standard order arrives as a trio with generous side portions of yellow rice and consomme for dipping—the best of both worlds. The quesabirria tacos are a smash hit, and unless you’re lactose intolerant, an absolute must. Quesadillas are very similar to tacos; the main difference is that cheese is mandatory. They also arrive as two pieces instead of three and without any sides.
If you’re craving a hot bowl of stew—the kind that seems to touch your soul on its way down—this is where you want to be. Select your protein alongside noodles or rice as a base. While the broth is near-perfect on its own, additional toppings increase the depth of flavor and provide new textures. Pro tip: Use the toppings liberally. Finish with a generous squeeze of lime, and in the moment of your first bite (or slurp), the world stands still.
Burritos and burrito bowls round out your entree options. Both arrive seemingly as heavy as a newborn child and offer tremendous value. In fact, everything at Taco de Birria is modestly priced. If you’re looking for a flavor-packed meal without breaking the bank, stop in and grab a seat. Orders can also be placed online at ricebardc.com—just be sure to click on the 2nd Street location to view the menu.
Taco de Birria by Rice Bar, 1300 2nd St. NE, (202) 817-3244, ricebardc.com