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By Edwin Goei
Asking $13 for a meal usually bans a restaurant from this column, but the birria at EL CABRITO in Santa Ana warrants an exception. That amount gets you five warm corn tortillas, a cup of consommé, forgettable beans and some of the greatest goat not cooked in a Pakistani or Jamaican restaurant.
But before I describe this bounty, a restaurant description: Mexicans. Dozens of them. All day and into the night. Eating outside on sturdy marble tables because this former Taco Bell has only one table inside. Everyone scarfing down birria. Customers can also buy tacos, tortas and quesadillas, but those get ignored like immigration laws along the border.
Birria is as primal a meal as one can find: goat cooked in its own juices until a buttery broth emerges—stronger-tasting than a bouillon cube, but many times more wonderful. It’s a dish native to the state of Jalisco, birthplace of mariachi and tequila, so you know to expect bold, vibrant flavors if a cook makes birria right. And the kind they prepare at El Cabrito (The Little Goat) is the best in Orange County.
It’s not just that the goat is tender to the point you can chop it with your nail; it’s the experience of forking through the mass El Cabrito hands you to find more meat. The average serving size is three vertebrae, with piles of birria surrounding the partial spinal column below and more on the bone waiting to get stripped—at least a pound of meat. A river of juices runs around the plate, and a couple of squirts of lime produce the best meat juice I’ve ever tasted, redolent of citrus and goat, surprisingly zesty. The other embellishments (cilantro and onion) are almost irrelevant, so epic is the flavor. Fork it into your mouth directly from the plate, slice it up to make tacos, it doesn’t matter—it’ll be good. However you enjoy it, don’t forget to squeeze out some salsa de aceite from the containers at every table; this rare condiment is downright Chinese in its oily fire.
Then there’s the consommé cup. Birria is traditionally a stew, and most restaurants offer their prize goat in steaming bowls. El Cabrito offers the broth in a tall plastic cup that’s more used to holding horchata, garnished with onion and cilantro. You can dunk the birria into the cup, but do like everyone around you and chug. I ate outside after the recent storms, when chilly winds ensured everyone wore coats and the Santa Ana Mountains remained covered in—what’s it called?—snow. No one complained; everyone went back for seconds. Arm yourself against winter with El Cabrito’s birria, and you’ll never shiver again.
El Cabrito, 1604 W. First St., Santa Ana, (714) 543-8461.