Mexican Pulled Beef Sandwich
Aka the Birria Beef Torta
If you haven't guessed by this point: I love sandwiches. I think I love them way more than the average person. But in all honesty I love simple, rustic, home cooked, hearty food across the board. Give me the world's best diner over a Michelin starred restaurant any day of the week. That's just how I am when it comes to food- I'm more excited if you tell me someone's grandmother is in the back cooking instead of the next top chef Canada winner. So all that said, yes I love me some sandwiches, but my love for that pedestrian street food doesn't stop there because I almost almost almost equally love tacos just as much.
Street tacos are nothing new - it's very common to be walking a street market in Mexico or catch a taco cart in LA just serving super simple tacos: meat, tortilla, some onion and cilantro and some variation of a hot sauce. Often that low and slow meat gripped by a piping hot fresh made corn tortilla. They are basically the messiest two bite snacks on the planet which is why everyone orders at least 3 tacos when it comes to these little food carts. Over the years we've seen the popularization of tacos. They have become trendy, diverse, more over the top and more expensive. I've seen tacos with caviar, and wagyu beef... at this point the tortillas are just holding anything and everything. But guess what, when done right, I love those tacos too. I don't think a trendy taco means it's automatically a bad taco- it's just different. Then I'd say in the past couple years the world of ‘classic taco’ and the world of ‘trendy taco’ have become one.
Birria beef tacos have been hitting the food scene by storm, popping up on menus and social media flaunting these cheesy, pulled beef tacos, dipped in delicious rich warm broth. Traditionally these tacos used goat meat, then it evolved to lamb and then finally the larger more mainstream version uses beef. The meat variation really just depended on where in the world you were getting them, there are parts of this planet where goat is readily consumed more than beef. I love them all ways, all the time. Over the past couple of years I was serving up these tacos off of my food truck and at a neighbourhood brewery in Toronto where my company was managing the food program. They were an instant hit and I took the long method approach to making them. You could taste the dedication. I would use a well marbled piece of beef blade and I would season it and smoke it for 3 hours at around 275F. These big pieces of meat were nowhere near done after 3 hours but from there I would transfer all that smokey flovoured meat and drippings to a flavoured broth I had already rolling. Beef stock, tomatoes, ancho paste, onions and some butter. Those large pieces of meat would simmer for hours until they just shredded without putting any work into them. Tortilla, cheese, meat, onions, cilantro and side of broth... but with about 9 hours of cooking and dedication. They were an absolute hit immediately which is why I decided to share my recipe with you, of course with a little twist, serving it up as a sandwich instead of tacos, with the same slow-cooked and stewed meat, melted cheesy goodness, topped with onion and cilantro, and delicious dipping broth, but served up on a crusty roll instead of the traditional corn tortilla.
The first step of any recipe, as always, is starting with good ingredients, so I used a nice piece of beef blade (also known as the shoulder) for my birria torta (sandwich). Beef blade is a great cut of meat to use for a low and slow cook, it has a good amount of fat and just breaks down so nicely during the three-to-five hours it takes to make it perfectly tender. The flavours you use for your beef will also flavour your broth, so I used a mix of a more traditional bbq rub and ancho chili powder to add some deep flavours to the broth. The fat and smoke are also important flavour elements that will make that broth just so rich and tasty. The fat from the beef renders into the broth and the smoke from the cherry wood just infuses the beef and the liquid with a perfect smoky taste that isn’t too overpowering. I added in onion, tomato and fresh cilantro to my beef broth and let that all stew for hours on the bbq.
Another key component to the birria beef experience, are the toppings, including the perfect melted cheese, diced white onions and cilantro. The secret is to put your shredded cheese straight down into the hot pan and once it’s melted a bit, your bun goes on top. The cheese gets nice and melted and golden and crispy on the bottom. Pile on your shredded birria beef which is just so juicy from the broth, close it up and wrap it in some parchment paper, cut it in half and top with the onion and cilantro mixture. And then just wait for that dip, it just adds that extra boost of flavour and you get the perfect bite. Now there are a couple other things you could add to this sandwich... you could add fresh avocado for some colour... you could add crispy tortilla chips for some contrasting texture, you could add fried jalapenos for some kick... they all work great but none are necessary so add at your own indulgence. Keep reading to find out how to make my Birria Beef Torta or click here to jump to the full recipe.
The first step to prepare your beef blade for your Birria Beef Torta, is to cover all sides with yellow mustard. The mustard acts as a binder for your rub but you don't really end up tasting the mustard at all after it cooks. It adds a hint of acidity, but not a strong mustard flavour.
The next step is to liberally season the beef with your favourite bbq rub and ancho chili powder. The meat is going to braise in beef broth on the bbq, so the seasoning is also going to add flavour to that broth, so definitely don't skip this step.
The broth is really simple to put together and I used some ingredients I had left over in my fridge: red onion, white onion, tomatoes and fresh cilantro. If you want to use just one type of onion, or whatever onions you have on hand, go for it. I just chopped everything up and threw it into an aluminum pan on the bbq with some canola oil.
While the vegetables are cooking, set up your bbq. I always recommend starting to heat your charcoal at least 20-30 minutes before you need to start cooking so it can get nice and hot before building your fire. Once the charcoal has turned white they are ready to go, I dumped out my charcoal into the bbq and then added on my cherry wood. I placed the wood on the side of the charcoal, not in the centre in direct heat. You should have a nice smoke going.
Once the fire is built and the vegetables have cooked a bit, place your seasoned beef blade on the top deck of your bbq and the container of vegetables on the grill underneath it. Add in about two cups of beef broth to your vegetables to make sure they don't burn, since they are over direct heat. Close the bbq and let everything cook for about an hour, letting all that smoke flavour get into your meat and vegetables.
Once the meat has started to pull back, it's time to add it into your container and pour in two litres of beef broth. Keep about 1.5-2 litres of beef broth to add in to the pan as the beef cooks, and the liquid reduces, over the next two to three hours.
After about two to three hours of braising, check on the meat and see if it starts to pull apart easily. It can go up to five hours total, so about one hour smoking and four hours of braising. Once the meat is pulling apart easily, it's ready to come off the grill.
Once you pull the meat off the bbq, remove from the container and pull apart. Make sure to add some of the broth as you are shredding the meat to make sure it stays moist. Reserve some of the broth in a separate bowl or two for your dip and then add the meat back into the container with the broth.
Prepare the torta toppings by finely dicing one white onion and fresh cilantro. Make sure the onion is very finely diced, because it isn't too pleasant getting a big bite of raw onion. Mix the two together in a bowl and set aside.
Next, cut your crusty round roll in half. In a pan, sprinkle in your cheese and as it starts to melt, add in your roll face down into the cheese. Let it cook for a few minutes while the cheese melts and the edges start to crisp up.
Flip the bun and let the bottom half of the bun lightly toast. You want this beautiful golden crispy top while the inside of the cheese stays melty and gooey.
To build your torta, place the cheesy roll on a square of parchment paper. Top with your pulled beef and close the top. Fold the parchment paper over your sandwich, tuck in the sides and roll. Cut in half with a serrated knife. Top each half with your onion and cilantro mix.
The step that you most definitely don't want to miss, is dipping your torta in that beautiful, rich, beefy broth. It will be the most perfect bite, trust me.
And now for the full recipe...
Birria Beef Torta
Makes 2-4 sandwiches
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 4-5 hours
Total Time: 4.25 – 5.25 hours
For the beef:
3 lbs beef blade
Ancho chili powder
For the stock:
1 red onion
1 white onion
1 bunch cilantro
4L beef stock or broth
1 white onion
1 bunch cilantro
2-4 round crusty rolls
Shredded cheddar or marble cheddar cheese
You’re going to want to start heating up your charcoals before you start prepping, since it takes about 20-30 minutes to heat up and to be able to set up your bbq or smoker. I like to use a chimney and fire starter cube to get the charcoal nice and hot and once they’ve turned white you know they are ready to go.
To prepare your beef blade, apply a thin layer of yellow mustard on all sides. Sprinkle liberally with the bbq rub and ancho chili powder, rub over the meat so it is well coated and covered. Set aside.
The beef is going to be braised in a broth and to build those flavours, you’re going to chop one red onion and one white onion into chunks, chop your tomatoes into quarters and use the full bunch of cilantro, just trim off the bottoms of the stems. To get your broth going, place your aluminum container or pan on the bbq on the heat and add a bit of canola oil. Once the canola oil is hot, add in the onions, tomatoes and cilantro.
While the vegetables are cooking, pour the hot charcoal into your bbq and add in your wood, I used chunks of cherry wood and placed them on the side of the charcoal, not in the middle on the direct heat. You should get a nice smoke going.
Next, place your meat on the top deck of your bbq and take your container of vegetables and place it on the grill under the meat. Add about two cups of beef broth into your container and allow everything to smoke for about an hour - this timing is based on the size of the piece of meat I used, so it will vary, just keep an eye on things - until the meat has pulled back a bit and has that great smoky flavour.
Add the beef into your container with the vegetables and then pour in two litres of beef broth and keep the remaining 1.5-2 litres of broth to add as the beef cooks and the liquid reduces. Allow the meat to braise for about another two to three hours. Once the meat pulls apart easily, around the three or four hour mark, it is done, although it can go as long as five hours if needed.
Next, prepare your toppings by finely dicing your white onion and fresh cilantro, then mix them together in a bowl. Set aside.
Remove the container from the bbq and pull the meat out, be careful because it may fall apart as you do this. Place on a plate or parchment paper covered surface and start to pull the meat apart, ladle on some of your delicious broth and continue to pull the meat. Add more broth and mix in with the meat. To finish it off, squeeze some fresh lime juice from half a lime over your beef to cut through some of the fat. Reserve a separate bowl or two of broth for dipping and then put the shredded meat back into the container with the rest of the liquid.
In a pan, on medium heat, sprinkle in a layer of shredded cheese. Cut your crusty roll in half and once the cheese has melted a bit, place the roll open face down into the cheese. Allow the cheese and bread to cook until the edge of the cheese has started to brown and crisp up. Flip and let the bottom side of the bun lightly toast.
To assemble your torta, place your cheesy bun down on a large square of parchment paper and top with the shredded meat. Close the sandwich and fold over the parchment paper, fold in the sides and roll. Cut the sandwich in half with a serrated knife. Top each half with the onion and cilantro mix. Your torta is now complete. All that you have to do is give it a dip in that beautiful rich broth and dig in.
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