By Frier McCollister
Any taco enthusiast in the greater Los Angeles area has been swept up in the media hype of birria de res tacos.
Birria is a meat stew that originated in the Mexican state of Jalisco and is associated with its capital, Guadalajara. It is traditionally made with goat or chivo. The more effete local foodies might even suggest that birria de res — with beef — is not authentic, genuine birria.
With tortillas stained red with rendered fat and stuffed with slow-cooked spicy beef, what’s not to love?
Fortunately, Pasadena residents can sample fresh birria de res in a variety of formats, all from a trailer parked on the northwest corner of North Lake Avenue and Mountain Street.
Birrieria El Patron 818 opened Feb. 20, and judging from the lines, owner Juan Valentin is doing something right.
“Growing up as a kid, the birria was just beef. It was beef,” Valentin said.
“We didn’t really like chivo. I didn’t, growing up. As a cook you really have to be good at it. It’s not my forte. A lot of the people in the (other) trucks they call it Tijuana-style or Guadalajara-style. My parents are from Michoacán, but I always take pride when I tell people, my style is straight out of Pacoima, the city where I was born.”
Make no mistake, Birrieria El Patron is well-rooted in Pacoima, the small town tucked into the northwest corner of the San Fernando Valley.
“That’s where I started my first business as a kid growing up. It’s the city that’s been giving back to me all these years,” he said.
Valentin launched a taco truck in Pacoima in 2005. With expansion in mind, he looked to acquire another truck or two and surveyed the landscape.
“In December (2018), I had a conversation with my wife,” Valentin said. “I told her, ‘I went to LA. I ate at a birria truck and you know what? There’s nothing in the Valley like that.’ It took me about a good month. I said, ‘I’m going to make the swap.’ I had an extra truck. We made the swap and, from there, we took off.”
Again, the launch was in Pacoima.
“I rolled out one truck in Pacoima, the city where I was born,” Valentin said. “I decided to go there and test the waters. From there, we started getting DMs from our Instagram page, ‘Hey, open up here, open up there.’ In 2019, I rolled out three trucks.”
Besides the flagship in Pacoima and the newest location in Pasadena, Birrieria El Patron trucks can be found firmly parked in Van Nuys, Covina and Lancaster.
Valentin said he chose Pasadena because he likes to branch out to cities where “nobody’s around.”
“Pasadena was due for a truck like mine,” he said.
Valentin’s trailer is parked in an alcove lane on the north side of Mountain Street, next to O’Reilly’s Auto Parts, on the corner of North Lake Avenue. Across North Lake from Roma Market and the Rodney’s Ribs’ truck parked in the CVS lot, the intersection is a buzzing hub for foodies. (Pro-tip: park in the lot behind O’Reilly’s, with the driveway off Mountain.)
“It took me two days to find that location,” Valentin said. “My wife and I started around 7 in the morning, and we drove around all through Pasadena. We drove around, drove around, drove around. We had breakfast, lunch and dinner. I told my wife, ‘You know, I think that’s going to be a good location. Let’s try it out.’ Pasadena is looking good. I can tell when a city’s going to hit within a couple days.”
The Pasadena trailer is managed by Valentin’s nephew and godson Junior Zepeda.
“Junior runs that truck,” Valentin said. “When the pandemic hit, my godson was unemployed, and I had a truck sitting there. (I said) ‘Run the truck. Whatever profit you get at the beginning, I’ll give it all to you.’ I know this kid. He grew up with us. We’re a tight family.”
Birrieria El Patron serves birria de res exclusively. Don’t ask for pollo or al pastor. Available formats include street-style tacos ($2); tacos dorados, served griddled with queso ($3); vampiros and mulitas ($4); quesadillas ($10.95); or a full tray of birria and tortillas for two ($25).
Instagram evidence suggests there is birria ramen as well, though it’s not listed as an option on the truck. Just ask Zepeda.
On a quick break from the action, Zepeda mused on his introduction to Pasadena.
“It’s been really good in Pasadena — thank God,” Zepeda said. “The people are really friendly. They’re really happy we’re out here. We’re here to stay.”