Even before the coronavirus pandemic, Estilo Chilanga was never a proper restaurant, though if you ate there on a Saturday or Sunday morning it was easy enough to imagine that it was. One of dozens of informal food businesses located in Richmond’s residential neighborhoods, Laura Rivera and her family have been selling tacos and Mexico City-style dishes out of their house for eight or nine years — and, since June, carved out a reputation for making one of the better versions of the cheesy, red-tinged braised beef tacos known as quesabirria, this past year’s most viral Bay Area food trend.
The operation consists of just a couple of flat-top grills and a long table in the front yard, but it’s a cozy, welcoming setup, from the colorful tablecloth to the communal bowls of chips and salsa. It’s no wonder that so many customers choose to grab a seat instead of taking their food to go.
Or they did, anyway, before the shelter in place went into effect last month. Now, Estilo Chilanga is in the same boat as all of the Bay Area’s officially permitted restaurants: It’s shifted to doing takeout only. But, in news that might surprise those who haven’t followed quesabirria’s meteoric rise to local prominence, sales haven’t suffered at all. In fact, Sandra Martinez, who helps her mother run the business, says they’ve been busier than ever.
That’s not to say they haven’t had to make adjustments. To avoid the public health risk of people lining up outside the house throughout the week, Estilo Chilanga now only serves on Saturdays and Sundays, cutting two days off their usual schedule. Martinez says they wear gloves and face masks when preparing the food, and they no longer let customers inside the front yard. Instead, they take orders by text, have customers pay with Venmo, and place the food on a table outside the front gate when it’s ready.
Even with these social distancing protocols in place, sales have been so robust, Martinez says, that they haven’t lost much revenue despite operating only on weekends now, from 10 a.m. to whatever time in the afternoon they sell out. She suspects that the extended shelter in place has actually heightened the demand. “Everybody doesn’t have anything to do,” she says. “Everybody’s tired of cooking.”
People have, of course, been turning to restaurants to fill those needs, but in Richmond in particular there’s also a vibrant informal economy of mostly Latino home cooks who hawk pupusas or tamales out of their front yards and driveways — sales that still seem to be happening during the shelter in place. And quesabirria itself is a food that, in some ways, seems custom-designed to hit all of a person’s comfort-food sweet spots during this time of anxiety and stress — at once crunchy, cheesy, and soupy, with a slow-simmered savoriness.
It’s no surprise, then, that Estilo Chilanga isn’t the only local spot that’s benefiting from more demand. With locations in Oakland and Richmond, La Santa Torta — and its birria “red tacos” — is one of the few food trucks that has been able to operate at anything close to full capacity during the coronavirus shutdown. This past Friday, El Garage, perhaps the biggest Bay Area quesabirria sensation of them all — or, at least, the one with the most legendary lines — set up shop for the first time since the coronavirus shutdown. To avoid a social-distancing disaster, staff took pre-orders by phone and attempted to space out pickup times so that only a few people would arrive at any given time. Co-owner Viviana Montano tells Eater SF her phone rang non-stop for hours the night before the pop-up, and they wound up selling about 1,000 tacos in a few hours before a health inspector showed up and told them to stop. (Because the coronavirus shutdown has delayed El Garage’s forthcoming restaurant’s final health inspection, the pop-up is still operating without an official permit.)
Rivera, a Mexico City native, has been selling the food of her hometown for eight or nine years now, though the business has only had an Instagram presence since this past June, which is when things started to take off. Estilo Chilanga translates to “chilanga style,” a reference to a slang term used in Mexico City to describe residents who weren’t from there originally — Rivera’s mother hails from Zacatecas. It’s a family operation: Rivera is the main chef. Martinez runs the business side of things, handles social media, and helps out with the cooking along with her sister Noelia Murillo. Juana, their grandmother, helps out too from inside the house, cutting onions and pouring the consomé (the broth that’s eaten on the side).
Just as they did during pre-pandemic times, the quesabirria tacos — a relatively new menu item — come dressed, by default, with onions, cilantro, and sour cream. In addition to the regular consomé, they also sell “birria-men,” another LA trend: a cup of broth loaded with instant noodles in addition to the soup and the tender chunks of beef. Rivera also makes fat gorditas, blistered on the griddle and then stuffed with meat, and — Rivera’s particular specialty — a sandwich called a pambazo that’s popular in Mexico City: a red-tinged telera roll dipped in chile sauce and crisped on the flat-top before it gets loaded with soft-cooked potatoes, chorizo, and Cotija cheese.
Those items are all relative rarities here in the Bay Area, and Rivera says her hope, eventually, is to open a small place of her own — a little taqueria or fonda (a kind of small, family-run diner in Mexico) where customers can sit down and enjoy some (indoor) hospitality with their pambazos and birria tacos. Those plans have, of course, been put on hold for now, but the fact that Estilo Chilanga’s quesabirria have, thus far anyway, thrived even in the midst of a pandemic bodes well for the future of the business.
- The Bay Area’s Hottest Taco Trend Comes Courtesy of LA, Tijuana, and Instagram [ESF]