Quesabirria tacos may have started out as a food trend, but they’ve become a fixture at most taquerias. John Bermudez’s family-owned restaurant, Masa, makes an exceptional version of the dish (three for $9.99 + $3 with consomé). After the traditional bath in broth, the fried taco shells turn out crunchy, not greasy, with a rich orange color. They’re stuffed with cheese, onions and cilantro, and dusted with queso cotija. The consomé, too, is worth the $3 investment, which isn’t always the case.
In a phone interview, Bermudez told me “the secret” behind Masa’s quesabirria: “100% grass-fed organic beef.” He added, “My mom makes this awesome birria. It’s just tender and smooth, but it took us quite some time to perfect because it’s really different when you cook it at home.”
Masa’s first location, in Point Richmond, opened a week before the pandemic. That’s when the quesabirria craze hit the Bay Area. At first, Bermudez’s mother, Rose, thought it was a fad that would pass, but her son wisely convinced her to put it on the menu.
Masa’s recipes, including a variety of homemade tamales and tortillas, all belong to Rose, whose own mother taught her how to cook them. Born in Guadalajara, Mexico, Rose started the business as a Bay Area street vendor. When Bermudez was a boy, she used to take him with her on her rounds in San Francisco, Oakland and Richmond.
“When I was under a year old, she would take me in her arms and we would sell tamales throughout the Bay area together, and it was just always me and her together,” he said.
After several years, the family acquired a food truck before opening Masa’s first location in Point Richmond. For the past four years, the business has been a reliable fixture in the community.
“When we started Masa, we didn’t expect to grow so fast,” Bermudez said. “We were really happy, even if we had 20 customers. It [Masa’s success] just became a reality.”
Now that Masa has about 50 employees, the Bermudez family felt it was time to open a second location. They converted a Jack in the Box in El Cerrito and, with the drive-thru window intact, opened it four months ago. Though there aren’t any seats inside the El Cerrito location, there’s a patio out front with several tables and umbrellas. And customers on the go can use the drive-thru window.
“It doesn’t take us more than about 30 seconds to make a burrito,” Bermudez said. “Considering that, we still sell tortillas that are made by hand.”
In addition to the quesabirria, we also tried tamales ($3 each). The rajas are stuffed with jalapeños and Oaxaca cheese. The chicken comes with a green sauce or mole. Both were steamed until the masa was perfectly tender. In an effort to keep the recipes consistent, and to improve upon them, both Bermudez and Rose cook in the kitchens at both locations.
“I’ve been really focused on the quality and the consistency of the food,” Burmudez said. “We want to give the best experience to everyone that comes into Masa.” Two of the original chefs the family hired still work at the restaurant. “Before we opened, we trained our chefs for six months. They didn’t know anything about Mexican food, but they had a great desire to learn from my mother.”
Bermudez continued, “I’m the type of guy who likes to eat Mexican food all the time. I enjoy a good burrito, and it doesn’t matter if it’s not mine.” But he does believe a burrito should be made with the right mix of ingredients. “Some people add a lot of meat—that doesn’t make a good burrito. When the correct portions of meat and condiments are inside, you get to taste all the flavors.”
The street tacos ($3.50), too, are made with careful attention to detail. On a homemade tortilla, there’s just stewed chicken, cilantro and diced red onions. Served on a steel metal tray, the staff adds a lime, sliced radish and pickled carrots. For two dollars more, they add extra items such as guacamole, rice or beans. Masa also makes fresh aguas frescas ($3). I tried a delicious one flavored with fresh cucumber.
Masa, 10409 San Pablo Ave., El Cerrito. Open Mon-Sun, 10am to 10pm. 510.524.7878. masatamalesandtacos.com.