The late, legendary Los Angeles food critic Jonathan Gold said he learned how to eat on the artery that pulses between Downtown L.A. and Santa Monica: Pico Boulevard. A virtual United Nations of food, for many Angelenos it is impossible to drive down the street without being seduced by the plethora of sights, smells and flavors offered on every block.
Pobres Tacos, a family-owned and operated food stand at the border of Pico-Robertson and Mid-City, is a spot worth braking for. Chef and owner Janet Gonzalez puts on a hypnotizing and delicious show. As she banters with customers, Gonzalez dips homemade corn tortillas into a spicy red broth before putting them on a piping hot griddle. When the tortillas begin to puff up, she sprinkles them with mozzarella and a generous portion of juicy shredded beef. The same red broth is then poured over the tacos in a slow steady stream turning them an intense saffron-colored hue. Then—poof—the sizzling broth evaporates into an aromatic cloud that drifts down the block, luring hungry and curious crowds.
These are quesabirria tacos, a quesadilla and birria hybrid.
A dish representative of the Mexican states of Jalisco and Nayarit, birria is typically served at festive occasions like holidays and birthdays (and as a hangover cure). For Gonzalez, who learned how to make the rich stew from her mother in Nayarit, birria serves as a visceral connection to her roots.
The preparation of birria dates back centuries and is traditionally made with goat’s meat. In an effort to alleviate an overpopulation of goats in Galicia, Spain, the animal was brought to Mexico during its colonial period. Left in the semi-arid lands of northwestern Mexico, the native people began making a stew from its meat. Seasoned with salt, a variety of chiles, and roasted tomatoes, its original preparation does not stray much from the modern one which includes onion, garlic, herbs and spices. (The word “birria” is used to describe something that is disorderly. The stew looks like a jumbled mess, hence its name.) The contemporary stew is still made with goat’s meat, although beef, pork, lamb and chicken are also commonly used.
Pobres Tacos’ version is made with beef. Served with a cup of spicy red consomé on the side and one’s choice of sliced radishes, cactus salad, lemon wedges, and an array of homemade salsas, the first bite of a quesabirria taco is nirvana. “They’re crispy and soft, juicy and tender,” describes Brissa Suarez, Gonzalez’s daughter.
Gonzalez moved to Los Angeles in 2004 as a single mother with two young children, Brissa and Ivan. She began working as a dishwasher in restaurant kitchens, eventually advancing to line cook at Capital Grill, Katsuya and Hama Sushi. Often the only woman on the line, Gonzalez claims she was “always the fastest, most organized, and most efficient.” She mastered the art of showmanship and technique from observing master sushi chefs. Recognizing that she was happiest while cooking, Gonzalez’s children encouraged her to open her own business.
When Los Angeles legalized street vending on January 1, 2019, Gonzalez decided to take the plunge. However, without a strong grasp of the English language, she found it virtually impossible to shuffle through the paperwork required to obtain the proper permit. In the current political climate, “many immigrants are fearful of going through the process,” says Suarez, who has lived in the States since age four. Suarez guided her mother through the paperwork. Permit finally in hand, Gonzalez rented a sidewalk space in a primarily white and Orthodox Jewish area on Pico.
Mesmerizing Instagram videos helped establish birria, the family’s favorite comfort food, as their specialty. In addition to the steady stream of loyal locals, Suarez—who handles Pobres Tacos’ marketing and social media with her brother Andre—says, “people travel miles just to taste our quesabirria and are often shocked to find a sidewalk set up.” But the family watched as other menu items became less expected customer favorites. When they first opened for business, many locals wouldn’t touch the cactus salad. Gonzalez now finds herself making an extra batch in the middle of the day.
Sitting on a wooden stump stool on a summer day, Suarez watches her mother pour broth onto beefy quesadillas while customers watch, transfixed. Latin music playing in the background, her brother Ivan, an aspiring rapper, cooks beside her. Although it fills her with gratitude and pride to see what her family has accomplished, the collective dream is bigger: they long to open a brick-and-mortar location, hopefully on the ever-expanding multicultural artery that is Pico Boulevard.
Pobres Tacos translates to “poor tacos.” “When my kids were little, sometimes I had to choose between giving them bus fare to get to school or use the money to get to work,” shares an emotional Gonzalez of her early days in Los Angeles. “We’ve always struggled,” adds Suarez. Today, Janet Gonzalez is a business owner with a wealth of stories and traditions, her children by her side, and her food rich in flavor.