The western Mexican state of Jalisco lost one of its most beloved culinary figures this month when Javier Torres Ruiz, better known as "El Chololo," died of a heart attack at the age of 74. Torres, who dedicated his life to making birria, a goat or mutton stew considered one of Jalisco's most emblematic dishes, ran two restaurants, both called El Chololo, that are often recognised as the best birrierias in the state.
His death on February 16 provoked an outpouring of public grief, with both restaurants shutting down for three days of mourning. "All our clients were really sad. Many expressed their condolences and there were some who cried. People really cared for him," Torres' niece, María Josefina Caminos Torres, told me days later.
Having served many Mexican officials over the years, Torres was also mourned in political circles. A host of politicians, including the Jalisco governor and the mayor of Guadalajara, the state capital, all tweeted their condolences to his family.
"He used to help a lot of people. If one of his regular clients lost a close family member, he would often help pay for the funeral," noted his nephew, Hugo Israel Caminos Torres. "He also helped a lot of local merchants through a local labor union and he served two or three times as a municipal councilor."
Discussing his uncle's legacy at the older El Chololo branch in Guadalajara's working-class Tlaquepaque district, Caminos told me the closely guarded family recipe dates back approximately 100 years: "My grandfather Isidoro Torres Hernández used to sell birria from a stall in the Tlaquepaque market. He started from the bottom but thanks to God he knew how to take care of the business and keep his recipe secret."
His uncle, Caminos recalled, used to say he was born on a plate of birria, and he sold his first batch at the age of 12. "So when my grandfather died my uncle carried on the tradition. Everyone called him Chololo, a derivative of my grandfather's name," Caminos added. "He used to sell by the side of the road in Tlaquepaque. He'd carry all his ingredients and even his oven on his bicycle each day. Then he started renting a room in this neighborhood, and eventually he bought the place, and that's when the first El Chololo restaurant was born."
In the early 1980s, Torres upgraded to the larger property, where I met his nephew. The sepia walls are lined with framed photos, newspaper clippings, and bullfighting posters, along with a shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe and several mounted bulls' heads. Years later, Torres opened a second, even bigger branch at a hacienda on the highway from Guadalajara to Chapala, Mexico's biggest lake. It quickly became a local institution, regularly frequented by prominent politicians, priests, musicians, and sports stars.
Served in traditional clay plates, the birria consists of succulent cuts of rib, back, and stomach meat seasoned with pepper, bay leaves, and marjoram. This is accompanied by a bowl of hot consommé made from meat juice and tomatoes, plus freshly made corn tortillas and frijoles topped with melted queso asadero. The meat is complemented with a squeeze of lime, a handful of raw diced onion, a scooping of the tomato-based salsa served up in volcanic rock dishes, and a dash of homemade chile de árbol hot sauce. It is best washed down with Torres' favorite tequila, the beefy, old-school Orendain Ollitas blanco.
But what sets all this apart from the fare at other birrierias?
The game-changer, Caminos said, was his uncle's decision to sell tatemada (oven-roasted) meat with the traditional consommé served up separately. "He turned the dish on its head because birria was traditionally cooked with a broth, but my uncle would prepare a mole to coat the meat and then cook it. We use a gas oven here, but at the restaurant on the Chapala highway we have a clay brick oven. If you went to any other birrieria, they'd serve the meat in the consommé, but here we serve them both separately. That way you can eat it however you like."
Preparing the scarlet, orange, and chocolate-colored moles used to marinate the meat and add flavor to the frijoles is a long and complex process which involves fermenting pineapples for three months just to create a special vinegar with the specific properties required. "I think we're the only ones who do this," Caminos said.
The quality of the meat is also of great importance. "Some people like goat birria and some like mutton. We only use goat, which is more traditional. Mutton is very greasy," Caminos explained. "Some people prefer it without the fat and the bones, but for me the meat attached to the bone is the juiciest, tastiest part. We sell over 200 kilos of meat a day between the two branches, so the meat has to be very fresh. The goats go from the pen to the abattoir one day, and then we get the meat and cook it the next day. A lot of other birrierias use frozen meat, but we never do."
While hugely popular among locals, El Chololo is also credited with popularizing birria at an international level. Celebrity chefs such as Chuck Hughes have filmed at the restaurant, while the Chapala highway branch is also increasingly frequented by tourists.
Intrigued to know what competitors thought of El Chololo, I went to Guadalajara's nine-cornered Plaza de Las Nueva Esquinas, where several of the city's oldest birria joints can be found. While most vendors emphasise their own businesses' efforts to popularize birria, several acknowledge that Torres also played an important role.
"El Chololo was influential in some areas. He helped make birria famous elsewhere, but not here where people have been making it for over 100 years," said Lupita Figueroa, the owner of Las Nueve Esquinas birrieria.
Gonzalo Gutierrez Solana, who owns Birrieria El Compadre, which was founded in 1936, told me El Chololo "is probably the best-known birrieria because it's a big place out of town, unlike any other. That's the advantage they have. I've been there before to try out the competition, but the truth is birria simply tastes different at every place you go to."
"I have great respect for him, the food at El Chololo is really tasty," added Juana Martín, the owner of Carnitas Uruapan. "We weren't really rivals or friends, but it's not about competition. We all just do our own thing."
That is precisely what the Chololo family intends to keep doing. Torres gradually improved the family recipe over the years and would always tell anyone who asked that the secret ingredient was God's will. Now it is his nephew's turn to carry the torch.
"Two or three days before he died, I went to visit him. He told me: 'You and I are the only ones who know the recipe. Take great care of it and the business, that's all I ask of you.' It's an enormous responsibility, but with God's help, we'll keep moving forward."
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