It’s 6 p.m. on a hot Monday in April and Donelle Mendoza has been cooking since noon. Bad Bunny and Ramón Ayala blow up an iPhone in his northeast Austin apartment when an incoming call abruptly interrupts a manic accordion solo. On this side of the line, she rattles off a series of well-rehearsed questions: “Have you ordered yet? Do you need the address? Original or red tortillas? Crispy or soft? Onion, coriander and salsita as an accompaniment? »
She leaves the call on the speakerphone as she dips a corn tortilla into the 10-gallon pot of rich, chili-laden consommé bubbling on her stove. The dipped tortilla sizzles and crisps on a griddle as it deftly folds into a mixture of Oaxacan cheeses and tender stewed beef with a flick of the wrist, then hangs up the phone.
For the next four hours, Mendoza repeats this one-woman balancing exercise, as dozens of customers call the person they alternately refer to as the “Facebook taco woman,” the “Birria lady,” or, her adopted nickname. favorite, the “Birria Queen” – an apt title given to her by an enthusiastic fan on social media.
From noon to 10 p.m., six days a week, his cramped kitchen turns into choreographed mayhem, where the aroma of cumin and ancho peppers perfume the air, the unmistakable ringing of Apple’s xylophone bleats on a loop, and the air conditioning turns on. beats valiantly to refresh the steam the confines of his workspace. And there, at the center of it all, is Mendoza, calmly and methodically filing each order in his head while chopping white onions and bushels of cilantro.
In 2018, before the birria trend swept through central Texas, the chef arrived in Austin from Salinas, Calif., homesick for the Mexican flavors she knew best on the West Coast. A daytime medical assistant, she started making the family version of the specialty dipped in Jalisco consommé after work. After posting the results on Snapchat one evening, her life changed forever as DMs immediately flocked to ask for a taste.
With each new effort, her social media presence grew and she wondered if she could actually make a career out of her kitchen. But the financial reality of being a single mom, especially the slower evenings when her phone went silent, gave her pause. Finally, in October 2019, Mendoza consulted a friend in the restaurant industry about pricing and began selling her food full-time out of her home. Through Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and now TikTok, she steadily expanded her following, creating a fervor that surprised even her. At first, 10 orders a day seemed daunting. Now, on a busy shift, she accomplishes up to four or five times that.
Nothing remains static in Operation Birria Queen. Even today, Mendoza tinkers with the menu, negotiates the requests of its clientele while striving to remain faithful to its well-kept family recipe. The beef chuck has been replaced by the more traditional goat shoulder, but it refuses to change the complementary oil-based condiments, such as its La Llorona sauce made with chili de árbol.
The Birria Queen has also perfected its taco delivery system. Imitating the door-to-door salespeople Mendoza grew up in California, she simply waves her hand outside the downstairs kitchen window, signaling to customers at her North Austin apartment complex whenever every freshly made order is ready to go. It’s an endearing play, one she would have to reluctantly sacrifice if she turned her farm into a food truck, a move that is seriously being considered in the near future.
By 10 p.m. most nights, Mendoza has made a sizable dent in the 15 pounds of beef simmering on the stove. In addition to her signature birria tacos, she also uses the ingredients of crispy fried taquitos, birria-infused nacho cheese that’s fishy on Hot Cheetos, ramen noodles swimming in meat broth, carne-laden fries, and a birria pizza that looks more like an overstuffed quesadilla.
Before cleaning up the pile of pots and pans, she scrolls through her various social media feeds and responds to the many messages she’s received throughout the day. It is then time to cook a little more, because it reconstitutes the broth which must simmer all night. It doesn’t feel like a job, she insists, but a tribute to her home and her heritage. It’s love on a take-out plate.
That’s why tomorrow, it will start again.