San Ysidro’s Tuétano Taqueria goes through 60 pounds of birria de res on a reliably busy day. No longer San Diego’s best-kept secret, the stewed, spiced beef shoulder is the inarguable star of the breakout eatery; its admirers range from Tijuana residents who cross the border just to dine in its tiny dining room to Latin food pro Bill Esparza, who wrote in Food & Wine that its menu offers “sheer deliciousness and inspiration.”
Its 32-year-old owner, Priscilla Curiel, born in San Diego but raised in Tijuana, is the first professional chef in her family, though she grew up working in the well-established restaurants her parents operate on either side of the border — Tijuana’s La Espadaña and Talavera Azul in Chula Vista. She’s an alum of the culinary program at the Art Institute of San Diego whose recipes aren’t hand-me-downs from generations past, but were developed during the eatery’s early days as a taco catering outfit and pop-up.
Made almost daily in the small, freezer-less kitchen, Tuétano’s birria is flavored with an adobo, or seasoning mix, that includes cinnamon, cloves, guajillo chiles, whole onions, and garlic.
Curiel’s best-selling taco is the quesabirria, which starts with a fresh-pressed tortilla, made with masa from National City’s Tortilleria La Estrellita and tinged crimson from the infusion of chile-infused fat skimmed from the stewed birria. Next comes a layer of melted mozzarella cheese, which the chef favors for its milky mildness to contrast the juicy, deeply spiced beef.
Optional, but emphatically advised (it is, after all, the eatery’s namesake) is the decadent addition of tuetano, or bone marrow. Chunky cross-sections of beef shank are thoroughly roasted until melting within, then dipped in meaty birria consomme before being seared on the grill until smoky and charred, ready to be scooped in buttery nuggets atop a taco. An oil-based salsa macha made with roasted garlic and chile de arbol brings additional richness, while diced onion and cilantro add freshness.
Curiel says that the bone marrow-topped tacos took a little while to catch on with customers, but Tuétano now has a growing cadre of regulars, many of whom also like to eat the fat from the bones just as they are with tortillas and salt.
Though birria is the undisputed standout, the menu is rounded out by other tasty guisados (stews), like rajas con crema, roasted poblano peppers and onions with cream, and chicharrón en salsa verde, fried pork skins softened in a green tomatillo sauce, as well as tacos filled with cochinita pibil, Yucatan slow-roasted pork, and carne asada quesadillas.
The chef told Eater that she has plans to enhance the San Ysidro space with more seating and a beer license, but her ambitions also include taking her style of Tijuana tacos beyond our borders; Curiel says she’d like to open outposts of Tuétano Taqueria in Los Angeles and New York City.