The parking lot outside of Fernandez Restaurant on a Sunday morning is bustling with hungry diners waiting for their names to be called for a table or lining up with large pots for to-go orders. Brothers Miguel Angel and Jorge Fernandez have been running this Tijuana-style birria eatery, located in the Nestor community of South San Diego, since 2006, and it’s more than doubled in size since its founding.
The business was born out of a rough patch, when the siblings were struggling professionally and exchanging ideas about how they could make a better living. Both Miguel Angel and Jorge had worked in the restaurant and hospitality industry, so they planned on starting an event catering business — until one morning, Jorge served a Tijuana-style birria for breakfast for the family and struck a different chord.
“Jorge served up a delicious meal,” Miguel Angel says, “and it was when we realized that serving birria in South San Diego, like the one found on the street corners of Tijuana, would be ideal instead of pursuing a catering business.”
The pair started with a food truck, loaned to them by Miguel Angel’s previous boss, for about nine months before opening up the restaurant. They quickly made a name for themselves among the multi-generational Tijuanense community of South San Diego by being the only Tijuana-style birrieria in the area.
Birria is a chile-based stew traditionally served during holidays and baptisms — and as a weekend hangover cure — though recipes and techniques differ from region to region in Mexico. Tijuana-style birrierias commonly feature beef, as opposed to the goat, lamb, pork, or sometimes even fish versions in other states of Mexico. In the case of Fernandez’s famous recipe, the beef simmers overnight; when it’s served in taco form, it’s finished on the stovetop. Much like the birria you would find in Tijuana’s famed Tacos Fitos, the tortilla is lightly fried with the oils of the broth and filled with the spicy, red-tinged birria.
“A combination of California chiles, a ton of dedication, and, most importantly, all of our heart and soul,” is how Jorge likes to reply when asked what brings this spicy broth of stewed beef to life. That’s as close as he’ll get to providing any hints about the family recipe.
As you walk into Fernandez Restaurant, the intoxicating smells from the kitchen fill the air, and on Sunday mornings, nearly all of the seats and tables are taken. The movement in the kitchen is a full-on, taco-studded symphony. Fresh corn tortillas fly through the air, making their way from one cook to another, before landing on the taquero’s flattop to be filled with fork-tender beef.
The menu is limited to the famed birria and menudo if you can catch it before it sells out on the weekends. The piping-hot stew comes either served in a bowl with plenty of broth, accompanied with a side of tortillas, limes, radishes, chopped cilantro, onion, and their chile de árbol-based salsa; already assembled in a crisped-up tortilla; or what Fernandez calls “quesataco” style, a popular upgrade in Tijuana taco culture that involves a slightly thicker corn tortilla oozing with melty cheese inside.
On Sunday mornings, what Fernandez Restaurant offers is a comforting back-to-basics experience: community, traditions, and food that warms the soul.
Tip: The parking lot directly in front of the restaurant fills up quickly, as it is limited in size. The restaurant conveniently offers a shuttle pick-up and drop-off from the nearby Southwest High School (1685 Hollister Street), where there’s ample parking.