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Kid ‘n’ Play

Imagine a big plate of roast kid crudely chopped into wallet-size chunks--the snips of cartilage; the crunchy burned rib ends; the sweet little wisps of flesh that attach themselves to membrane or hide between slivers of bone; the muscly, fist-size knots of pure meat.

Birria --chile’d goat--might be the most primal dish of Mexican cuisine, and the word birria itself roughly translates as “brutish.” It’s possible to order dishes such as carne asada or cocido without imagining anything more vivid than poly-wrapped supermarket chuck; you can eat mild tacos de tripas without thinking of the calf intestines on your plate. But with goat, there is no getting away from the funky animal reality of the thing. Maybe it’s the cold weather or something, but I’ve been a little goofy about birria recently. Goat is strong meat.

Birrieria Chalio has sat forever on an eastern stretch of 1st Street, amid a row of burger stands and dime stores, in one of the few bits of the Eastside that still has an old-fashioned city flair. Inside, the happy buzz, the three-generation families, the elaborate Christmas decorations, the wait for a table makes you suspect you’ve stumbled into the best restaurant in the neighborhood.

Chalio occupies a tall room, with goats’ heads and stags’ heads high on the walls, a norteno- stocked jukebox in one corner, and on each table a squeeze bottle of sauce that seems hot enough to set off a fusion reaction in your silver fillings. As soon as you sit down, a waiter brings over a plate of chopped onion, shredded cilantro, halved limes and a small plastic molcajete filled with fresh salsa. Vendors wander through selling flowers and bargain banda cassettes.

You’ve been to Eastside restaurants where roving bands of mariachis dispense tunage to anybody with a couple of bucks; musicians come through here too, but they’re just as likely to set their accordions down on the floor and eat lunch as they are to play.

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Chalio has creditable bowls of menudo and the hominy stew pozole , saucy enchiladas, giant tacos made with hand-patted tortillas and what seems like a full quarter-pound of grilled beef, but birria is the most popular dish to the extent that you may not realize Chalio even has a menu--the waiters don’t ask you what you’re going to have, they ask you what you’re going to drink with it.

Whereas the waiters at many birrierias periodically come by to top off the tomato-laced broth ( consome ) on your plate, at Chalio a few dollars gets you all the goat you can eat. Just as you finish one plate, sop up the superb consome with a tortilla and pick up a rib to gnaw off an overlooked scrap of flesh, the waiter comes by to see if you’d like another. On weekends, it’s not unusual to see guys plow through three or four plates of birria and as many baskets of tortillas and cans of Modelo beer.

The birria here is flavored with a strong hit of a mint-like herb, which may be a trademark of the Zacatecas-style birria Chalio serves (most restaurants advertise birria made in the style of neighboring Jalisco) or an interesting quirk in the family recipe.

Corn tortillas are big, stretchy, unusually tan, handmade in-house except on Sundays, when you’ll have to make do with factory tortillas.

Once you’ve been coming here a while, you learn to specify the cut of goat you want--the crisp, oily rib section, teeming with little bones; straight boneless goat meat cut from the flank or the leg; lean loin of goat--but until then, you’ll get sort of a combo platter with a little bit of each.

* Birrieria Chalio

3580 East 1st St., East Los Angeles, (213) 268-5349. Open daily, 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Cash only. Beer and wine. Lot parking. Takeout. Lunch for two, food only, about $12. Other locations at 2104 Brooklyn Ave., East Los Angeles, (213) 261-0017; 11300 Washington Blvd., Santa Fe Springs, (310) 692-6118.


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