I was eating at Los Arcos, a Mexican restaurant in Medford, Oregon. People who like really good Mexican food drive miles to eat there, and one of them told me about the place.
Located on the edge of town in an industrial zone, Los Arcos has something rare in this region--handmade tortillas. Women come in to pat them out on weekends. But any day the restaurant offers delicious tacos, chiles rellenos (made with fresh poblanos). barbacoa, carnitas and many other dishes, all produced from scratch.
The Thursday I was there, the specials were menudo, caldo de pollo (chicken soup) and chicken burritos. I opted for tacos (with a relleno on the side), because my informant had said they were so good. And the sign on the wall outside indicates that Los Arcos is an "autentica taqueria Mexicana" (authentic Mexican taco shop).
The tacos were small, presented open faced with the meats and a good fresh green salsa on top. Carne adobada (marinated pork) was more delicate than the robust, spicy meat that I am accustomed to. Carne asada was fine, but the birria stood out. The flavors of tomato, chiles and seasonings blended in perfect balance without any sharp intrusion of chile heat or strong spice.
The cook, Leonarda Gonzalez, is from Zacatecas, a state that borders Jalisco. Her husband Martin, who owns the four-year-old restaurant, is from a town near Tepic, Nayarit, which also borders Jalisco.
Leonarda was not in that noon, but their son Martin, who was in charge, picked up his phone and called for the recipe. And she obliged, although it was probably a challenge because she cooks without measuring.
Here is my interpretation of Leonarda's birria. It may not be quite the same, given the way I had to guess at quantities and procedures, but it is delicious in its own right.
Adapted from Los Arcos Mexican restaurant
4 dried California chiles
1 pound roma tomatoes
2 cloves garlic
1 ½ pounds beef stew meat, trimmed of fat
2 tablespoons vinegar
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon dried marjoram
1 inch stick cinnamon
6 black peppercorns
2 beef bouillon cubes
1 teaspoon salt or to taste
Lightly coat a heavy griddle with oil and heat over medium high heat.
Place the chiles on the griddle and roast for a minute or two, until fragrant but not browned. Place the chiles in a saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil. Remove from heat and let stand until soft, about 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, roast the tomatoes, onion and peeled garlic cloves on the griddle until spotted with brown. Remove from the griddle. Pull off any loose skin from the tomatoes.
Drain the softened chiles, reserving 1 cup soaking liquid. Remove the stems. Open the chiles and rinse to remove the seeds.
Combine the chiles, tomatoes, onion and garlic in a blender container and blend until smooth. Pour into a sieve set over a bowl. Rinse out the blender with ¼ cup reserved soaking liquid and add to the sieve. Puree the mixture through the sieve, discarding the solids that remain.
Place the beef in a large saucepan. Cover with water and bring to a boil. Boil 1 minute. Pour into a colander and rinse well. Return the meat to the cleaned pan.
Pour the chile puree into the saucepan. Rinse out the bowl with the remaining chile soaking liquid and add to the beef along with 1 cup water.
Add the vinegar, bay leaves, marjoram, cinnamon stick, peppercorns, beef bouillon cubes and salt.
Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and cook at a gentle simmer, loosely covered, 3 hours. If the heat is low enough, it should not be necessary to add more water.
Take out the meat, place on a cutting board and shred, using two forks or a fork and a sharp knife. Return to the pan and simmer for 30 minutes, mixing with the sauce.
Eat as a main dish with rice, or use as taco filling. For tacos, place the meat on top of hot, soft corn tortillas and top with chopped onion and cilantro, then fold and eat. The beef is not spicy, so accompany the tacos with hot salsa to add as desired.
Makes slightly more than 3 cups, enough for 12 tacos or 4 servings.
Los Arcos Restaurant, 1501 Sage Road, Medford, OR. Tel: (541) 773-8226.