Birrieria Bugambilias7242 Franklin Blvd.
Sacramento, CA 95823
For some time now, I’ve been sticking to tacos and other takeout items when it comes to Mexican food. That’s what happens when a La Fiesta Taqueria opens up around the corner from one’s house, making it all too simple to return over and over to casual favorites. But there’s a world of other choices out there, especially if you head south to places like the tongue-twisting but delicious Birrieria Bugambilias. The specialty of the house is birria—goat-meat stew with a distinctive deeply flavored charm—but there are plenty of other options with an authentic flair to choose from.
Birrieria Bugambilias, which is definitely a sit-down kind of place rather than a taqueria, sits in a shopping mall on Franklin Boulevard, just a bit south of Florin Road. From the outside, it looks a little faded, but inside everything is neat, clean and inviting. The sunny yellow walls and comfy booths reminded me of the old Cal-Mex places we used to eat at when I was a kid. Some of the inside detailing, however, reminded me of an old-school Round Table Pizza: The décor included faux Tudor beams; vaguely medieval wooden chairs; and a jaunty, striped awning of the sort you might expect to find at a latter-day joust. I wondered if perhaps the space used to belong to an outpost of the pizza chain.
If so, there’s no trace of any fast-food flavors in the food, which covers a range of Mexican items. Yes, you can get your taco-enchilada combination plate here, but you’ll also find more unusual items, like costillas (pork ribs in sauce), the aforementioned birria in guajillo-chili broth or seca (dry) and plenty of intriguing seafood dishes.
There are also cocktails. I seem to recall that all were tequila-based, including margaritas, of course, and a drink with Coke and tequila. You can also get, amusingly, a Smirnoff Ice on the rocks in a salt-rimmed glass. I decided to go for a beer instead, and my Negra Modelo, with a lime in the bottle, was perfect with the straightforward yet carefully prepared food.
The emphasis here is firmly on freshness. The thick and perfect corn tortillas are deliciously handmade, with a fine texture that provides a whole new perspective on the ubiquitous and usually forgettable flatbread. Guacamole, too, is made by hand and to order, as the menu proclaims. We could hear it being mashed in the partially open kitchen just seconds before it came to our table, chunky with bits of onion and topped with a sprinkling of salty, sharp cotija cheese. Unfortunately, one of the avocados was maybe not quite ripe, so there were a few less-than-silky chunks amid the otherwise excellent and simple mixture.
Even the salsa that came to the table when we first sat down had a little special touch. While the heat level was somewhere below searing and in the range of pleasantly warm, it had a full, rounded chili flavor. The texture was also great, chunky with shreds of crunchy cabbage, an addition that worked well.
A quite different salsa came with my birria seca, which was a plate of shredded goat meat just moistened with sauce along with a second plate of condiments: cilantro, limes, chopped onion and a brick-red salsa of extreme intensity. So earthy as to verge on bitterness, it was clearly made from dried chilies, which offered a strong heat. On its own it would have been overpowering, but on the not-quite-gamey meat, which was very tender from long simmering, it was perfect. A drizzle of green salsa over the top of the meat added a bit of tartness, as well. Fluffy, mild rice and delicious refried beans (probably with nearly as much tasty lard as beans hidden in them) rounded out the plate, along with a basket of those fantastic corn tortillas.
My husband had the tacos dorados: five tiny, folded, deep-fried tacos. They were a far cry from the crispy-shelled type we all grew up with. Instead, these had savory shredded beef (chicken is also available) folded in the miniature tortillas and were crunchily golden at the edges. The pile of little tacos was topped with a lavish mound of shredded lettuce, sour cream, tomato salsa and other embellishments, making for a messy but very tasty plate—one likely to please the least adventurous of eaters.
There’s also a tasty and fairly extensive kids’ menu, and we ordered a quesadilla with chicken for our daughter. Any of us would have eaten it happily, a testament to the flavorful (but mild) stewed and shredded chicken inside.
The presence of plenty of options makes Birrieria Bugambilias all the more attractive, though you’ll want to be prepared to either speak Spanish or gesture comprehensibly. Our server was friendly and efficient but spoke little English—a clear sign, along with the menu, that this restaurant is catering to a Mexican clientele with its authentic dishes. As far as I’m concerned, that just makes it all the better as a place to break out of a Mexican-food rut.