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Carolina Dine Around - December 10, 2021

The Holy Church of Birria

The birria dip at the new Queeny's in Durham is part of a nascent trend of birria fusions
The birria dip at the new Queeny's in Durham is part of a nascent trend of birria fusions (Scott Meyers)

By Robert F. Moss

It’s time for the Carolina Dine Around, our weekly digest of food and beverage news from around the Carolinas. We’ve got slow-braised birria and dining in old churches on our minds these days, for both play prominent roles in this week’s Carolina food news.

So let’s dig in.

The Birria Boom

2021 has been the year of birria here in the Carolinas (and just about everywhere else in the country, for that matter.) Lately I’m seeing signs that it isn’t going to be just a passing fad but rather is starting to settle in for a nice long run.

You’re seen the videos on Instagram and TikTok, right? Fingers gripping a crisp, orange-tinged taco brimming with beef and cheese, dunking it with a splash into a styrofoam cup of herb-laced consommé . . .

As Bill Esparza explained in a useful deep dive for Eater back in January, birria de res got a bit of a slow start the United States then took off like a social media-fueled rocket. It arrived in Los Angeles in the mid 2010s, an import from Tijuana taco stands, which in turn had adapted it from a regional goat stew into a preparation using beef. And suddenly in the closing months of 2018 it really exploded thanks to a flurry of Instagram posts from influencer types documenting their lunches at L.A. taco stands.

By the summer of 2019, quesabirria de res tacos, as the cheese-laced variety are known, were taking New York and Austin by storm. They arrived in Carolinas a year or so ago, popping up first at various taco trucks and then making their way to brick and mortar restaurants like El Pincho Taco in Charleston. When the Charlotte Observer set out in August to track down birria in the Queen City, it turned up seven options, including two taco trucks, a ghost kitchen, and the local chain Sabor Latin Street Grill, which now offers birria in 16 restaurants around the city.

Indeed, what was once a taco truck novelty has quickly become a standard menu item at all sorts of Mexican-themed restaurants. When I stopped off at Taco Boy in downtown Charleston last weekend, I noted a new entry on the taco lineup, right between the carne asada and the baja fried fish: a birria taco.

Birria tacos with a consommé for dipping are a recent menu addition at Charleston's Taco Boy
Birria tacos with a consommé for dipping are a recent menu addition at Charleston's Taco Boy

Why the hell not? I thought, and ordered one. It was delicious—crisp tortilla offset by the gooey cheese, the tender beef brimming with bright, fragrant flavors from the adobo. I imagine it’s not going to leave the menu any time soon.

Indeed, birria tacos are now starting to cross-over to non-Mexican restaurants. They’ve been a big hit as a recurring evening special for Jake Wood at Lawrence Barbecue in BoxyardRTP between Raleigh and Durham. Here in Charleston, the Home Team BBQ on Sullivan’s Island ran quesabirria tacos as a special two weeks ago, making them with chopped brisket instead of stewed beef. Expect to see them popping up at a lot more barbecue restaurants in the months to come because, well, brisket.

As the brisket substitution suggests, it seems the birria craze is already evolving into its next phase: birria fusions. Maria’s Mexican Restaurant was one of the first to bring quesabirria tacos to Charlotte, and it’s leading the charge on this new fusion wave, too. The restaurant now offers birria-topped nachos, birria-topped fries, birria flautas (stewed beef-filled tortillas rolled into tubes and deep fried), birria pizza (beef and cheese layered between two large toasted flour tortillas and cut into 8 slices), birria burritos, birria chimichangas, and the ultimate hipster mashup, birria ramen, in which adobo-stewed beef is served in a big bowl of broth along with ramen noodles, cilantro, onion, and a hard-boiled egg.

Combining two of his best selling specials, Jake Wood at Lawrence Barbecue just rolled out the brisket birria smash burger, with the stewed beef layered between the burger patty and the top bun. The menu at the newly-opened Queeny’s in Durham includes the “Birria Dip”, a French dip mashup that stuffs birria inside a baguette, with a cup of broth on the side for dipping, of course.

I’m just waiting for the first restaurateur to create the “Carolina Birria taco,” with fried green tomatoes and pimento cheese layered atop the beef. Or maybe the “Lowcountry Birria benedict,” with beef-laden poached eggs garnished with mustard-based barbecue sauce and a spear of pickled okra. The AirBnBers brunching their way to their airport would really eat those up.

You heard it here first.

Charleston

Separation of Church and State

5 Church in Charleston is actually located in an old church, but that has nothing to do with the name
5 Church in Charleston is actually located in an old church, but that has nothing to do with the name

Over the years I’ve poked gentle fun at 5Church, the Charleston outpost of a popular Charlotte restaurant by the same name. Said fun was poked because:

  1. The restaurant is not actually on Church Street but at 32B North Market Street
  2. The building actually used to be a church (with high vaulted ceilings and stained glass windows still intact) but that has nothing at all to do with the name
  3. 5 Church Street is an actual Charleston address, located less than a mile away

I would chuckle as I imagined bewildered tourists plugging “5 Church Street” into their map apps and pulling up at a little brick cottage just off the Battery without a lamb burger or “60 second” New York strip in sight.

The 5Church name, of course, was borrowed from the original restaurant up in Charlotte, though the official address there is not 5 Church Street, either. It’s 127 North Tryon Street. But the restaurant’s main entrance is at the corner of 5th and Church Street, and they streamlined things by dispensing with the “th,” the “and,” and all those pesky spaces. (The North Tryon address is due to the restaurant’s being located in a big ass building that stretches all the way down the block to the next street, which is Tryon.)

ANY WAY. None of that matters because, as Parker Milner reports for the Post & Courier, the Charleston location will no longer be called 5Church. Mind you, it will NOT be renamed 32B North Market. That would be too simple. As of January first, the new name will be . . . wait for it . . .

Church and Union.

Where on earth does the Union part come from? you might ask, for there is no Union Street anywhere near the restaurant’s uptown Charlotte location. Nor is there a Union Street anywhere in Charleston, at least not any more.

No, Church and Union is the name of the restaurant group’s Nashville incarnation of the 5 Church concept, which is located on 4th Avenue between Church and Union Streets. How they managed to find so many locations near but not quite on a Church Street is truly remarkable.

The impetus for the name change, I will note, is not geographic but rather involves a bitter legal battle between the 5th Street Group and a former investor. That investor’s name is not Sid Church, but I really wish it was.

Another Home for The Home Team

Flush with the profits from all those birria tacos, the owners of the burgeoning Charleston-based Home Team BBQ empire just announced it will soon be adding its seventh location. It will be located on Highway 17 at the northern end of Mount Pleasant (or Lower Awendaw, as we like to call it,) taking over the low-slung green building that formerly housed the Rusty Rudder seafood restaurant.

When I first moved to Charleston almost two decades ago, that building sat empty, its gravel lot used to park a fleet of trucks (tow trucks, if I remember correctly). “That would make a great spot for a barbecue joint,” I thought every time I drove past. Before I could recruit enough investors to make the idea a reality, someone else snapped up the location and opened a short-lived barbecue joint called Oink!

Charleston chef Brett McKee and Steve Palmer’s Indigo Road restaurant group took over the spot soon after and transformed it into 17 North Roadside Kitchen. They later spun off a Charlotte location, which they called 15 North Roadside Kitchen for reasons that are unclear to me, since it was located not on Highway 15 but rather at 1513 Montford Dr. The investors and McKee had a falling out in 2011 for reasons I can only assume had to do with the confusing naming practices.

The Rusty Rudder took over the 17 North spot in 2014 and closed at the end of February 2020, just narrowly avoiding the Covid-19 pandemic, but everyone knew that location was destined to be a barbecue joint. “There have been murmurs online in recent weeks regarding a new Home Team BBQ opening in the Rusty Rudder space,” the Charleston City Paper reported in its story on the Rusty Rudder’s closing almost two years ago, “but owner Aaron Siegel told us last week that there’s no truth to those rumors.”

That will teach you people to listen to online rumors.

The Triangle

In news from the state capital in Raleigh, Governor Roy Cooper this week appointed Hank Bauer to be the new chair of the North Carolina Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Commission, which oversees the state-run liquor distribution system. Bauer is a 30-year veteran of the beer, wine, and spirits industry, serving most recently as the general manager of Empire Distributors and before that in sales roles with Boston Beer Company and Blue Ridge Beverage.

He certainly brings a different resume to the office than the man he is replacing. Zander Guy, who resigned as ABC chair in September amid rampant supply issues, is a former insurance agent and realtor and served as mayor of Surf City for 18 years.

Charlotte

Secular Trends

While we’re on the topic of dining in old churches . . . Kathleen Purvis got the scoop this week for Axios Charlotte that the owners of the popular new restaurant Supperland, which is located in a former church in Plaza Midwood, just bought another church. The former house of worship was originally built in 1915 by the congregation of Dilworth Methodist Church, and it’s currently home to the modern American restaurant and wine bar Bonterra.

Supperland’s co-owners, Jeff Tonidandel and Jamie Brown, tell Purvis they don’t yet know what kind of restaurant they’ll open in the building, but I’m willing to bet birria tacos will be on the menu.

Orto Out

The Queen City will have one less Italian restaurant after this weekend. The Unpretentious Palate reports that James Beard Award-nominated chef Paul Verica will be closing the doors at his NoDa restaurant Orto after dinner service on Saturday, less than a year after it opened. Verica attributed the closing to a perfect storm of construction delays, equipment and supply shortages, higher than expected food and labor costs, and general burn-out and fatigue.

Leftovers

We over here at the Southeastern Dispatch are in desperate need of food-related gift ideas for the holidays. Also, we’re busy planning our holiday entertainment, but there doesn’t appear to be a single restaurant in the Carolinas that is offering any sort of special holiday dining packages or take-out meal options. New Years Eve is looking a little bleak, too. Is no one doing any kind of special all-inclusive parties or anything like that?

We’ll keep digging, though, and will let you know in the next Dine Around if we are able to turn anything up.

About the Author

Robert F. Moss

Robert F. Moss is the founder and publisher of The Southeastern Dispatch as well as the Contributing Barbecue Editor for Southern Living magazine and the author of numerous books on Southern food and drink, including Barbecue: The History of an American Institution, Southern Spirits: 400 Years of Drinking in the American South, and Barbecue Lovers: The Carolinas. He lives in Charleston, South Carolina.

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