Mateo Otero pulls a large, steaming pan of beef birria—chile-and-spice-braised beef—from the oven that it’s been simmering in for 14 hours. His Tucson restaurant, named Rollies Mexican Patio for the rolled, fried tacos on the menu, sits along South 12th Avenue, a stretch of highway known for its abundance of Mexican restaurants and grocery stores.
In recent years, Rollies has garnered local acclaim for its birria, a dish that hails from Jalisco, Mexico, where it is traditionally made with goat. “In Tucson,” Otero says, “birria is always made with beef.”
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Otero fishes the meat from the broth and places it in a separate pan. Then, he blitzes the broth and aromatics with an immersion blender and runs the brick-red liquor through a fine-mesh strainer. The broth will serve as a dip for the quesabirria tacos—griddled cheese and birria-filled tacos—and as the base for the birria ramen, two of the top‑selling items on the menu.
Birria RamenA Tucson original with his own spin.
He turns to the meat and breaks it apart with a construction-grade tile scraper. The meat is so tender that it falls into fine shreds with little effort. When asked about the tile scraper, Otero says it was an impulse buy from the hardware store to ease the chore of shredding so much birria. “We go through 125 pounds of birria a day. So now, it’s a kitchen tool!”
In 2017, Otero—already well established in the Tucson culinary scene thanks to his successful catering business—was in line to compete in a televised cross-country food-truck race. But when that plan fizzled out, his fiancée encouraged him to pursue a brick‑and-mortar restaurant instead.
“I had the food truck concept in my mind, but it accidentally turned into a restaurant,” he says. “The concept was super fast-casual. Order at the window, pick up right here.” He gestures to the windows along the back wall of the dining room that open into the kitchen. “The kitchen back there is literally the size of a food truck.” They opened the doors three weeks after signing the lease, and business took off right away.
With Rollies, Otero didn’t set out trying to be everything to everybody. His menu features dishes that he feels represent Tucson’s cuisine filtered through his own unique personality. “If you grew up in Tucson, you grew up eating these things. But I put my own spin on it.”
Birria used to only appear on the Rollies menu on Thursdays. “I didn’t want to be known for birria and carne asada and everything else everyone around here is known for. I wanted to be my own thing,” Otero says. But when the pandemic hit, he realized that birria and carne asada would be essential to his restaurant’s survival, so he added them to the standing menu. He says that they were also the first in the area to sell birria ramen.
“The first day [selling ramen] it was nuts here. We had 50 orders sold before we even opened. There was a line out the door all day just for that. That saved us during the pandemic.” Now, they sell birria ramen on Thursdays and Saturdays, a cadence that’s comfortable for the restaurant.
In the kitchen, Otero explains that everybody makes birria a little differently and jokes that recipes are often so closely guarded that people frequently lie about what’s in their versions. “Trust me. I know,” he says with a big laugh. “But the key is garlic and chiles. You want to taste garlic and chiles, and just a hint of some kind of [warm] spice. With most traditional recipes it’s cinnamon, cloves, stuff like that.”
He says a lot of people overpower birria with too much warm spice and theorizes that the habit comes from versions made with goat, which is gamier than beef and does well with more spice to balance its strong flavor. “To tell you the truth, I’ve probably changed my birria recipe over 13 times. And I still have different recipes.”
Quesabirria TacosA Tucson original with his own spin.
Otero assembles a fresh batch of birria in a stockpot with 40 pounds of beef chuck that’s been cut into large chunks, two whole onions, two heads of peeled garlic, more than a dozen guajillo chiles, a handful of bay leaves, and finally a copious blend of what he tells me are about nine different spices. He’s vague with the particulars of the spice blend, and when I ask specific questions he smirks and says, “You know I’m going to give you a fake recipe either way.”