Quesabirria: What’s Driving this Cult Following? Is That a Molten Cheese Taco?
Last fall in Do The Hustle, our 2021 Hospitality Trends Report, we declared Quesabirria our “Food of the Year.” As you may have noticed, quesabirria has, in fact, been spreading across the nation. Recent coverage in Eater’s various cities map out the new quesabirria places in cities as diverse as San Francisco, Austin, New York and Charleston.
Eater did a great job chronicling the rise of quesabirria here way back in 2019. Historically, we’ve seen trends originate in major metropolitan regions on one of the coasts, before slowly working their way across the country, fanning out from larger cities. Quesabirria was clearly on the rise in the San Francisco Bay Area growing rapidly from one small pop-up to infiltrating menus at pop-ups, restaurants and food trucks. It became a cult favorite, a dish for the dedicated to seek out.
What is the secret to quesabirria’s success in infiltrating its way into the American appetite? How did this unassuming dish take center stage? There are a combination of factors at play, and we might suggest that any food aspiring to become a “food of the year” takes note. All kidding aside, here are a few factors to consider as you develop new menu items, especially during our pandemic recovery.
Familiarity & Comfort
Most people seek familiar foods; they may be eager to try something new, but it is often building on a taste memory of something they know. Quesabirria could be described as a cross between a taco and a quesadilla with its oozing molten cheese filling. Taco Tuesday helped make tacos a part of common culture, one no longer wedded to its Mexican origins; tacos have become a playground, a vehicle for conveying all sorts of delicious items from your plate to your mouth. Put in a taco, the unfamiliar becomes much more approachable.
Many of the more traditional taco fillings are braised or shredded meats, so replacing carnitas for instance, with another stewed meat (now usually beef in this case although birria originally was made with goat) is an easy change to make. That molten cheese is also another source of familiarity for the uninitiated. The cheese gets crispy on the edges when griddled, contrasting with the oozing center. The creaminess of the cheese offsets the meat, while the heat of chili cuts through the richness of both. Consomme served on the side helps wash it all down. The layers of texture and flavor create a complex whole, greater than the sum of its parts.
The dish also currently speaks to the moment, when many people are searching for comforting foods and are more likely to seek out those that they don’t eat or make at home.
Visual novelty can also be a driving force for the success of new menu items, capturing people’s interest and spurring them to try it. Quesabirria is served with the consomme on the side. Not only does this add another layer of flavor, but it is an interactive component that plays well on social media: dripping melted cheese filled taco dipped in a rich broth. People can eat quesabirria in various ways: try it on it’s own, sip the consome alone, try dipping the taco in the consomme. Choose your own adventure, and then make a tiktok video about it.
Some of the original vendors of quesabirria were very socially savvy, using instagram to great effect, promoting quesabirria with enticing visual images and video that captured the sights and sounds of the tacos on the griddle, driving interest and demand. This demand helped the trend takeoff as other vendors took notice and began to offer the dish too.
Quesabirria is also a pretty economical dish, made from inexpensive ingredients just requiring time and care to put together. The price point makes it an experience many people can afford to enjoy. It’s casual food that doesn’t require a special special occasion to try it. This too is a pertinent factor, especially as millions of people throughout the country have been hit with hard economic times due to the global pandemic and affiliated shutdowns. We expect price point and food cost to drive menu innovation to an even greater degree in the coming year.
While it can be impossible to know at inception if a new dish will become a “gotta have” for a restaurant or spark a lasting trend that sweeps the nation, there are some common themes at play that can be used to help improve the outcome. Dishes should strike a balance between familiarity and novelty, and an experiential component is an added bonus. Comfort and contrast both work in favor of a new dish while economics and social savvy can help determine where and how quickly it spreads. Most importantly, it’s got to be really delicious.