Often parked near LA’s fashion district, Birrieria Don Ruben may look like a simple, classic taco truck, but inside it simmers with the complex flavors of birria de res, a Mexican beef stew slow cooked in a fashionably spiced red broth. It’s a signature dish that accessorizes a full menu of handmade tacos, burritos, tortas, mulitas, and rice plates.
The versatility of birria made it a clear choice for Chef Ruben Ruiz to feature on his new food truck. “A lot of people are surprised because they think it’s just a taco truck,” he said. “But I tell them I specialize in birria. They try it, and they fall in love with it because it’s made with love.”
Since traditional birria ingredients can vary by Mexican region, Ruben’s style is influenced by family recipes he grew up with in the state of Michoacán. Having spent the past 20 years working in downtown restaurants, he has since honed recipes of his own. “My style has a little bit of where I’m from, and I add my own spices to it,” he said. “I created this one so you can taste all of the flavors.”
Birrieria Don Ruben uses about 11 different spices and five different chili peppers, all of which contribute to the stew’s crimson red color and mellow heat. Tomatoes, onions, bay leaves, a bit of ginger, and even a hunk of chocolate add to its mosaic of flavors. In a towering pot, this rich blend simmers harmoniously with several pounds of Angus beef for seven to eight hours until the meat falls apart on its own.
“It’s cooked very gently and very slow,” Ruben explained. “The more you cook it and the longer you cook it, the more it’s going to concentrate the flavors.”
The distinctive birria broth and tender meat then become ingredients in themselves, bringing a new dimension to other Mexican street foods encased in tortillas. With a $2 taco, you can get an introductory taste of Ruben’s birria meat on a handmade tortilla, along with a small cup of the consommé broth to use as a dipping sauce or sip as a soup.
Birrieria Don Ruben goes a step further with Tacos Dorados, making grilled tortillas infused with birria broth. After flattening out an extra large ball of fresh masa dough, Ruben pours some birria consommé onto the hot grill and lays the tortilla over the sizzling broth. As they grill together, the tortilla absorbs the color and spice of the broth before a heap of cheese and birria beef is placed on top. Once folded, the taco gets an extra hit of red broth poured onto the grill before being served.
“And then if you dip the taco into a cup of our broth, it’s amazing!” Ruben declared.
Mulitas take you to the next level of birria mania, with dripping beef and cheese sandwiched between two jumbo broth-grilled tortillas for twice the fun. Or you can take an extra cheesy route and ask for a Quesataco. For these, Ruben piles a bed of shredded cheese on the grill that melts into a flat circle. While the cheese browns, a tortilla is placed on top and infused with broth. Once flipped, the browned cheesy side is met with more cheese and birria.
Burritos also come filled with birria, or if you prefer bread with your beef stew, the Tortas make a fine birria sandwich. Both have the option to be served “ahogada,” bathed with a pouring of birria broth. For that, a fork is highly recommended. A fork is pretty much required for the birria plate, which comes with rice, freshly cooked beans, and guacamole. Or you can buy a bowl of birria in its original soupy form to tackle with a spoon.
Having only been on the road since March, Birrieria Don Ruben’s menu continues to evolve. Beyond birria, the truck already offers a variety of other slow-cooked and marinated meat options, including carnitas, asada, chicken, and ceviche. Ruben also plans to develop more birria-dominant dishes—quesadillas, nachos, french fries, and breakfast dishes—along with daily specials like chicken wings and burgers. “We’re trying to make it fun and interesting,” he said, “So, I want to switch them out. Fajitas, ceviche, everything I know.”
To keep up with his ambitiously expanding menu, Ruben regularly stays up until midnight and wakes up before the sun. He heads downtown before 6am to secure a parking spot in an area that lacks many food options. The cooking starts right away. To ensure quality and authenticity, he makes as much as possible from scratch, from the marinades to the salsas, to the tortillas, to the agua frescas.
He also takes his own approach to making fresh beverages. The distinctive tanginess of the Tamarindo comes from boiled tamarind. And for the Jamaica, he boils hibiscus flowers instead of soaking them overnight. The result is a mesmerizing deep red punch with a tart kick. “I boil it to get the flavor out of the flower,” he said. “I don’t put a lot of water in it, so it gets concentrated.”
As an extra touch, Ruben coats the rims of these nonalcoholic drinks with a specialty mix of sweetened tamarind paste, chili powder, and salt, created locally by MicheViche. It’s a beverage treatment inspired by the michelada, a Mexican beer cocktail with a zing of sour and spice, served in salt-rimmed glasses.
“We’re all getting our ideas from back home, and we’re bringing it back here, which is exciting,” Ruben mused. “I was in Mexico 7 years ago and it was so beautiful to me—the culture, the love they put into their food—that I wanted to bring it here.”
For as familiar as Ruben is with the downtown LA food scene, downtowners have grown familiar with his food. So the food has been Ruben’s first priority in starting this new business. The truck itself is still charmingly plain and white, marked only by a generic “Tacos” sign that faces the street. When open, a printed poster board of the Birrieria Don Ruben logo is temporarily fastened onto the back of the truck, bearing a striking black and white cow head design in Mexican folk art style. Ruben has a vision of how the truck will look when he’s ready to get it wrapped. But for now, it’s all about the food.
“It’s beautiful when people tell you it’s good. I love to hear that. I think that’s why I started this,” he explained. “Starting on my own is hard. It’s super, super tough. But I love it more and more every day.”