Hugo Carranza’s mom didn’t have any daughters.
And in the traditions of many families Carranza grew up with, that meant there was no one to teach to cook. But his mom was not about to let her sons grow up into the kind of men who waited for women to bring them a plate.
“It was this kind of machismo thing with a lot of guys,” Carranza said. “But my mom was a single mom for most of my childhood and she wanted us to be able to take care of ourselves. She wouldn’t just cook an egg, she would say, ‘Let me show you how to cook an egg so you can do it when I’m not around.’”
So Carranza wasn’t a stranger to the kitchen. But he never felt particularly drawn to cooking as he worked office jobs around Los Angeles — and why would you want to, anyway, in a city where on your commute you might pass hot dog carts and taco trucks and strip-mall joints selling the country’s best Mexican food by the dozens?
What he did feel drawn to was doing things himself, crafting new things from nothing. His brothers, avid amateur mechanics from a young age, had parlayed their lifelong hobby into a successful towing business. And Carranza, now freshly transplanted to Western Washington from L.A. on a whim, asked himself, “What’s my thing?”
These days, Carranza has his thing down to a science. When he arrives at El Mariachi, his restaurant on Evergreen Way in Everett, on a Monday morning, his prep team is already whirring away at batches of pistachio-green guacamole-habanero sauce in the industrial blender.
One cook dollops spoonfuls into single-serve cups, ready to send out with each order of tacos, while another ladles out the green sauce’s more aggressive red cousin. The air around the prep station is on fire with the aroma of sizzled arbol chiles distilled into the deceptively powerful crimson oil.
But the real star of the show simmers quietly on a back burner of the gas range, waiting for its turn on center stage. Inside the massive stockpot, cubes of beef bubble away in the company of bay leaves and salt. It’s nothing much to look at at this stage, but El Mariachi’s fans know the best is yet to come.
It seems Carranza’s found his thing, and a favorite thing of Snohomish County taco connoisseurs, too, in the pursuit of bringing a taste of his hometown to Washington.
When he first moved to the Northwest, Carranza noticed a sharp absence in his daily commute — no street vendors on neighborhood sidewalks, no ladies pushing shopping carts full of tamales. And though he’d never really considered himself a chef, he saw a chance to bring something brand-new to his new home.
Carranza developed his recipe for birria — a Mexican dish of slow-cooked beef in an aromatic broth made from its own cooking juices — over the span of months, tweaking each batch’s ratio of spices, turning to his wife and El Mariachi co-owner Viviana Garcia to ask what was missing.
The beef had to bring up vivid sense memories of quinceaneras and backyard cookouts, special occasions where Carranza’s family and friends back home would dedicate their weekend to tending birria for hours on end. Everyone has their own closely-held family recipe, Carranza said, though they’re rarely written down.
He got the base recipe from a friend in Tijuana, then doggedly tested and re-tested until he found something unique, truly his. He started up a taco truck, just like the ones back home, that served as the laboratory for many of his experiments.
As the birria reached its final form, it rapidly gained a cult-like following, and when El Mariachi moved into a permanent space in 2022, people knew what they wanted when they stopped by.
Carranza stocks El Mariachi merch now. He worried at first about displaying hoodies and shirts in the dining room, where they’d absorb the pungent scent of grilling meat wafting out from the kitchen. Customers told him that was part of the appeal.
“It’s been fun to see people who’ve never had birria or different types of Mexican cuisine come in and have their minds blown, because it’s a lot different from the chips-and-salsa kind of places that are more common here,” Carranza said. “But to be honest, the best compliment is when someone from L.A. comes in and says it’s the best they’ve had. That’s how you know you made it.”
It starts at 5 a.m. with the simple simmer in the massive stockpot. The chunks of inside round roast burble away for a few hours ahead of the restaurant’s 11 a.m. open time, as Carranza and the other cooks work on the rest of the house specialties: chipotle-bathed chicken tinga, pork al pastor, and carne guisada, a hash of tender steak and potatoes.
They even stock a spicy soy chorizo option for vegetarian taco enthusiasts, but Carranza said the birria is far and away the most popular option. On an average week, over 500 pounds of it make their way into the hearts and bellies of the restaurant’s loyal patrons.
As Carranza pulls the meat from its steaming cauldron and begins adding his signature blend of spices, it isn’t difficult to see why. The roast is meltingly tender, seemingly shredding at Carranza’s lightest touch. He keeps it simple, letting the primal essence of the beef shine through the layers of flavor that will soon adorn it.
The leftover cooking liquid in the stockpot will be slowly transformed into a seductive, deep caramel broth known as consomé. A healthy sheen of fat glitters on top. Carranza skims tallow from the cooking pot regularly throughout the process, but it’d be sacrilegious to toss it all.
“That’s where all the flavor is,” Carranza said. “No other spice or flavoring can do what that fat does.”
Handfuls of spices go into the stockpot next, whole cloves and broken cinnamon sticks layering atop the more traditional garlic and cilantro.
Carranza pulled inspiration from Indian masalas here, choosing to toast whole spices — some, like marjoram and star anise, more typical to Middle Eastern or South Asian cooking than homestyle Mexican cuisine — himself, rather than relying on pre-ground powders. And the difference is one you can taste, even smell, notes of warm spice entwining beautifully around a rich, satisfyingly umami base.
Another long, slow simmer later, and it’s showtime. Some of the consomé is reunited with the beef from which it came for added flavor, and the rest is saved for a turn as a scene-stealing supporting role.
Customers order Carranza’s birria in the form of burritos, quesadillas, even in birria ramen. By far, the most popular vehicle for the delicious beef is the queso tacos, almost embarrassing in their layers of gluttony: gooey cheese melted between two corn tortillas, loaded simply but generously with tender shredded beef. On the side, pop-art-vivid cilantro and magenta red onions — pickled in lime juice, not vinegar, per a recipe fiercely guarded by Garcia — are the only adornment besides your two choices of salsa.
But it’s really all about the consomé, made to dip your taco in between bites like a south-of-the-border au jus. Carranza grills his tortillas before assembly to offer a little extra structural support, but eventually some crumbling is unavoidable as the broth softens the tortilla and seasons the beef. If you take your order to-go rather than lingering over a Jarritos in El Mariachi’s brightly colored space, you’ll have to treat the box tenderly so as not to spill the cup of broth nestled between tacos and toppings.
But it’s worth it. Just like the early mornings and the never-ending test batches and the sting of chile in Carranza’s eyes and the lingering scent of onions on your breath when you return to work from your lunch break.
It wasn’t his plan, but Carranza knows he’s found the thing he’s best at.
“There’s nothing better in this life than getting to serve all these people and seeing how much they appreciate my work, which comes from my culture and my hometown and a lot of things that made me,” Carranza said.
Chef Hugo’s Birria
The best birria is a labor of love. Cooking times may vary depending on your range, cut of meat used — El Mariachi uses beef, but traditional recipes often call for goat or lamb — and heat level, but expect it to spend about three to four hours on the stove. In a hurry? Throw it in a pressure cooker for an hour or two. Use the wait time to toss together a batch of quick-pickled onions for topping. But don’t even think about asking for Garcia’s recipe.
10 pounds beef chuck roast or another lean, tender roast, cubed
10 dried Guajillo chilies
10 dried ancho chilies
10 dried árbol chilies
5 cinnamon sticks, broken, toasted
5 whole star anise, toasted
1 teaspoon marjoram
1 teaspoon cumin seeds, toasted
4 whole cloves, toasted
1 teaspoon granulated beef bouillon (Carranza uses Knorr)
Grilled corn tortillas, shredded Cheddar or jack cheese, red and green salsa, pickled red onions and chopped cilantro, to serve
Place meat in a pot and cover with water. Season with salt. Cover and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce to a simmer and cover again.
In a small saucepan, boil Guajillo, and ancho chilies in enough water to cover for about 5 minutes to rehydrate.
Add rehydrated chilies to a blender with árbol chillies, cinnamon sticks, star anise, marjoram, cumin seeds, cloves and beef bouillon. Blend until sauce is smooth and thoroughly combined, then pass through a fine-mesh strainer to remove seeds and large chunks. Add sauce to pot with meat.
Let beef simmer until tender and easily shredded, about 3 to 4 hours. Remove from pot, reserving consomé for eating with birria or dipping tacos. Chop it up, add it to a tortilla with melted cheese and your toppings of choice, and you’re good to go.
Sound & Summit
This article is featured in the fall issue of Sound & Summit, a supplement of The Daily Herald. Explore Snohomish and Island counties with each quarterly magazine. Each issue is $4.99. Subscribe to receive all four editions for $18 per year. Call 425-339-3200 or go to soundsummitmagazine.com for more information.