Atlanta Orders In: Mexican birria trend has been a saving grace for Chef Smokey

The birria rice bowl at Chef Smokeys ATL is topped with cilantro, onion and lots of queso. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
The birria rice bowl at Chef Smokeys ATL is topped with cilantro, onion and lots of queso. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

When the pandemic hit, Mauro Cruz’s job installing granite came to a halt. He had to find a better way to make a living. “I got three kids. I got rent. I got car notes. I got to do something,” he thought to himself.

So, Cruz, 30, who grew up in Atlanta and Mexico and had a background in restaurants, started cooking birria on a wood fire outside his home. He advertised on Instagram, “basically as a joke.”

To his surprise, people came.

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Mauro Cruz, aka Chef Smokey, makes delicious birria tacos. Seen here is the three-taco plate with beans and rice. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Mauro Cruz, aka Chef Smokey, makes delicious birria tacos. Seen here is the three-taco plate with beans and rice. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

Now, after a little more than a year, Cruz, aka Chef Smokey, has more than 20,000 Instagram followers and a restaurant in downtown Austell with his name on it.

After his backyard birria business took off, Cruz saved and bought a food truck, which appealed to customers leery of indoor dining. Then, at the beginning of March, Cruz and his business partner, Carlos Bickers, reopened Bickers’ restaurant, Isabella’s Pizza and Wings, as Chef Smokeys ATL.

Now, you can find patrons standing in line for tacos, nachos, quesadillas, burritos, taquitos, chimichangas, fries, tortas and rice bowls — all with birria. There’s even a birria-smothered burger and a birria pizza that Cruz said outsells the pepperoni.

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The birria pizza at Chef Smokeys ATL marries an Italian-style pie with the dish for which Mauro Cruz is known. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
The birria pizza at Chef Smokeys ATL marries an Italian-style pie with the dish for which Mauro Cruz is known. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

In case you missed it, a birria trend has swept Atlanta, and Cruz claims to be the guy behind the local craze. “I started the whole hype in Georgia. You can ask anybody,” said the self-proclaimed king of birria. “Now, you see it everywhere. There were restaurants that never had birria before, and now they got it.”

While people in the Mexican state of Jalisco know birria as goat stew eaten from a bowl, much like pozole, another preparation — known as birria de res (beef), which started in Tijuana and traveled to California — is used in tacos. To make the type of birria tacos now in demand, stewed meat is stuffed into a soft tortilla with cheese, dipped in the oily gravy, and fried on the griddle. A small cup of consommé is served on the side, for dipping.

On Wednesday night, I pulled into the Chef Smokeys parking lot, and joined a line of people waiting outside the brick building with red trim, which has a crystal chandelier dangling over the entrance. Cruz has had so much trouble finding staffers that he offers only to-go food some nights.

ExploreRecipes for making birria at home
Mauro Cruz, known as Chef Smokey, started making birria to support his family: daughter Isabella (with glasses), daughter Yareli, wife Jaqueline and Mauro Jr. — aka Lil Smokey. Courtesy of Alexis Garcia
Mauro Cruz, known as Chef Smokey, started making birria to support his family: daughter Isabella (with glasses), daughter Yareli, wife Jaqueline and Mauro Jr. — aka Lil Smokey. Courtesy of Alexis Garcia

Credit: Alexis Garcia

Credit: Alexis Garcia

Some customers grab their food and eat it perched on the back of their pickups. Rather than trek back to the city, I followed suit. I spread my order — a birria taco plate, rice bowl (with chicken birria) and pizza (with chicken birria and chorizo) — out on a sidewalk bench.

The rice bowl, topped with cilantro, onion and queso, was quite tasty, and filling. The thin-crust pizza was a solid effort. I recommend this pie, although, next time, I’d get it with beef.

The beef birria tacos, dipped in consommé, are remarkable. Though it’s hard (for me) not to like a grease bomb such as this, it’s the long-simmered, deeply flavorful, bright-red dip that elevates the dish into something extraordinary. I poured the gravy over the rice bowl. I wanted to eat it on everything.

Cruz, who was born in Atlanta but later lived in Guerrero with his dad, said the birria of that region of Mexico is cooked by wrapping chunks of meat in foil and braising it for hours. In Jalisco, the birria often is cooked in a pit in the ground. His method was to dispense with the foil, and the pits, and instead cook the dish over a wood fire. (Hence, his nickname.)

Though Cruz cannot replicate that technique in a restaurant, he’s still cooks a mean pot of birria. In many ways, he does it because he has to. In a time of economic uncertainty, birria is what saved this father of three.

Is there a restaurant you want to see featured? Send your suggestions to ligaya.figueras@ajc.com.

CHEF SMOKEYS ATL

Menu: Mexican, wings and burgers; birria is the star

Alcohol: yes

What I ordered: birria taco plate (beef); pizza with chicken birria and chorizo; rice bowl with chicken birria; Mexican Coke. I ordered in person, and the food came out quickly. Now, I understand the birria taco phenomenon; Mauro Cruz’s cooking makes this humble former pizza parlor a destination

Service options: order by phone or in person; technically, the restaurant offers dine-in, but a staffing shortage sometimes necessitates to-go only; no delivery

Outdoor dining: two tables

Mask policy: yes, for staff and patrons, though I did observe some unmasked customers in the carryout line

Address, phone: 2805 Veterans Memorial Highway SW, Austell; 770-485-7457

Hours: 4-10 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; 4 p.m.-midnight Fridays-Saturdays; 12-6 p.m. Sundays

Website: facebook.com/chefsmokeyatl/?ref=py_c

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