At dinner time on most Fridays and Saturdays, Palmera Mendoza has three chefs dedicated to preparing one dish – one filled with lean beef, slowly roasted in its own juices with herbs and spices and piled high not once but twice with mozzarella, between three layers of tortillas. .
In an adjacent bowl, reserves are waiting for their chance to cover their next pizza, and sure enough, your hand, soon to be dipping a slice into a little Styrofoam cup of the stuff, the Instagram-famous one, sprinkled with chopped red onion and cilantro.
Mendoza cornered this hot new “pizza” market, and with it became the Queen of Beria in western Washington.
A Google search using only the word pizzacoa reveals that Mendoza coined the term: results show various links that all connect to her family’s restaurant in the South End of Tacoma, located between the Azteca Tortilleria department store and El Jalapeño.
Los Tamales was once known locally by its handmade name (you should try the sticker-packed restaurant), but now it’s a Mexican restaurant that attracts visitors from all over the South Sound, from eastern Washington and Oregon, according to Mendoza.
They are here for the birria.
In essence, birria de res is barbacoa beef slowly roasted in a fatty red broth—hence the word “coa” in Mendoza pizza. The same meat stars in Quesaberia, tacos are also marinated and served with barbacoa sauce. It is often made from goat (chifu) or lamb (ovega). Complicating matters further, in some Mexican states, including the Mendoza family’s home in Michoacan, berea means goat only, while barbacoa will be either beef or lamb.
You decided not to mess with renaming the quesabirria because you’re not messing with fame.
In the United States, sometime between 2018 and today, the term “birria” (pronounced “beer-ē-ya”) has become synonymous with this taco. My Instagram feed—and likely yours if you’ve ever peeked at a single photo of The Birria Dip—has been filled with examples of this sexy and cheesy phenomenon for months. Barbacoa is clearly storied, but Beria as America knows it, according to Eater’s Bill Esparza, likely took off when a taco truck owner in Los Angeles snapped a photo of his cusaberia drenched in consommé, the descriptor of choosing the accompanying broth.
The epidemic appears to have set its course from coast to coast. If taqueria didn’t already have quesabirria on the list, it is now, because the owner would miss out on a lucrative opportunity like the one Mendoza stumbled upon when a customer sent her a letter last summer asking if she made birria pizza.
“I couldn’t describe how busy we were,” she told The News Tribune in June, reflecting on the restaurant’s biggest year since it opened in 2016. “One customer asked if we were making pizza, and I said, ‘Pizza? In a Mexican restaurant? We had barbacoa, so why not give it a try? I did, and I didn’t even pay for advertising or anything. I just put a picture up on my Facebook account, in Los Tamales, and it was just…a boom. “
Built like an American quesadilla, the pizza starts with three tortillas on the flat surface, then each is topped with rich red barbacoa sauce, Mendoza points out for the meat reserves. Each topping contains beef barbacoa, shredded mozzarella, two scoops of sauce for good measure, and a generous wave of raw red onion and chopped cilantro. It is sliced like a pizza and served like a pizza, on a circular metal tray on site or in a ready-made pizza box.
She remembers one of her cooks saying, “She’s dreaming big. Really, we’re going to sell pizza? Like, okay! I bought a box of boxes, but they thought I was crazy.”
Los Tamales has already detected customers’ affection for its quesabirria, which it introduced in May 2020 as “tacos de barbacoa con consomé” before catching the term du jour.
When the pandemic changed the way we live, Mendoza realized, “I had to be unique.” Adding family packs of 16 tacos or 12 tamales with rice, beans, and soda to a 2-quart for less than $30, gained new fans and plenty of families who kept coming back for “super-authentic food, like your grandmother’s.”
In the wake of her quesabirria’s success, she posted a photo of her first pizza on a Tuesday morning in August, saying it would be available Friday. That morning, the phone started ringing, ringing, and ringing.
“I want pizza, pizza, pizza, pizza,” Mendoza said. “I couldn’t stop selling pizza.”
At $16.99 for the small 9-inch model or $26.99 for the large 12-inch model, pizza is as typical as a Friday night pizza ritual. Perhaps a culinary paradigm of Mexican-American culture, flavors, textures and traditions blend in a unique sense.
What sets Los Tamales apart from other birria makers, though, is the family’s barbacoa, cooked for three or four hours with cinnamon, cloves, cumin, marjoram, thyme, and avocado leaves. “It’s all in style and flavor,” Mendoza said. “We use special meat – it has very little fat, and that is one of our secrets. Fat makes barbacoa better.”
It doesn’t just do the beef but the broth, and as we’ve learned, no birria experience is complete without that messy and satisfying dip.
The funny thing is, Los Tamales always had birria de res and de chivo on the menu, but in traditional soup form or in a standard taco. Mendoza estimated they ate 100 or 200 pounds of barbacoa per week. She said they now shred about 1,200 lbs. At some point last year, she was in the restaurant from eight in the morning until midnight, every day, “because I had to be here. I couldn’t let the customer down. We needed to cook the meat. We needed to be ready for the next day.”
She remains humble and owed, she says, to the support of her family, who has owned the neighboring grocery since 1999 and Tortelleria since 2005. One of her sisters runs the saloon in the same square at 72nd Street, while the other runs the saloon in the same square at 72nd Street. El Jalapeno runs the Renton.
Her parents worked in Chelan for several years before her father moved to Seattle in search of a better job. He eventually got a job as a dishwasher at Moctezuma’s, where Mendoza and her sisters worked at one point. After opening a grocery in Tacoma, he dreamed of having a restaurant nearby. Soon, they’ll open another, said Mendoza.
Her sister wants to know: “What are you going to invent now?” I laughed. “I’m thinking, I’m thinking!”
Los Tamales, Tacoma
▪ 1018 72E Street, Tacoma, 253-301-0849, facebook.com/Lostamalestacoma
▪ Mon – Fri 10am – 9pm, Sat – Sun 9am – 9pm
▪ details: Homemade Tamales, Mexican Platters, the famous Quesaberia ($10.99 for 3 tacos) and Pizzaco ($16.99-$26.99)
This story was originally published June 22, 2021 5:05 a.m.