Silverio Moreno, founder of Birrieria Flor Del Rio, which changed its name to Birrieria Nochistlán in July 2016 when the business moved across the street in Boyle Heights, died on June 5 at the age of 73. He had been recently diagnosed with cancer. Silverio, along with his wife Amparo Luis Bustos, served Bustos’s family’s traditional birria de chivo (goat birria) from Nochistlán, Zacatecas for more than two decades. He’ll be remembered as a pivotal figure in the rise in popularity of birria in Los Angeles, which in recent years has spread out across the United States and beyond.
Around 1997, Silverio Moreno and Amparo Luis began selling birria de chivo out of their home in East LA. Luis had worked as a cook alongside her father, Guadalupe Gutierrez; mother, Maria del Refugio Bustos; and brother, Saul Luis Bustos, at their birria stand in the Mercado Municipal Nochistlán, called Birrieria El Chivo, which is still in business. Yet it was Moreno, who learned the recipe from his wife, who eventually took over the cooking, which was his passion he continued up until his diagnosis of late stage cancer back in April.
The quiet, somewhat reclusive Moreno loved his alone time at the restaurant, where he’d begin his prep shortly after midnight, beginning to cook around 2 a.m. He would stay up all night watching Mexican politics videos on YouTube, especially anything about AMLO (current Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador), or playing Scratchers, until the birria was ready around 6:30 a.m. The restaurant was his sanctuary. Silverio was one of the first cooks to establish a traditional birrieria like in Mexico, where birria, typically a weekend indulgence, is the only thing on the menu. Unlike the younger birria stars of today, Moreno avoided the spotlight and would not show up to the many events Birrieria Nochistlan would participate in as vendors, preferring instead to serve his loyal customers at the restaurant.
Born in Zacatecas in 1948, Moreno moved to Ciudad Juárez as a child living in poverty, cleaning houses in exchange for food in his teen years before joining the Mexican Army at the age of 16, where he got to see all of Mexico and try the local food. “He would tell us how he ate so many tacos de aguacate (avocado tacos) in Michoacán, given to him by families over there,” says Violeta Moreno, Silverio’s daughter, and co-owner of the restaurant. While stationed in Nochistlán, Zacatecas, Silverio met Amparo, fell in love, and decided he’d had enough of the Army. He headed to the United States, crossing the border several times to bring his wife and children to Los Angeles. “He never liked when he had to do things like burn marijuana crops in Sinaloa, and other things that he saw as hurting poor people in Mexico, so he got out,” says Rosio Moreno, Silverio’s youngest daughter, and also co-owner of Birrieria Nochistlán.
In Los Angeles, the elder Moreno worked at a car wash and was a janitor for a long time at Saint John Bosco High School in Bellflower, an all-male Catholic preparatory high school. Eventually, he saved enough money to take over a Mexican restaurant in Boyle Heights, Flor del Rio, choosing to keep the name when he took over in 2002. At the time, birria was not trendy. Popular Mexican restaurants like El Parian, Birrieria Chalio (whose late owner was a relative of Amparo), and others served regional goat birria from Jalisco and Zacatecas, catering to Mexicans from those states, and also serving all-day menus of antojitos and combo plates. At Birrieria Nochistlán, Silverio Moreno resisted the temptation to expand the menu, who wanted to keep it traditional. For the first year, they only cooked their birria on weekends, like in the North Central region of Mexico.
The great birria boom of the past few years has created many opportunities for young birrieros, and entrepreneurs who are social media and brand savvy. But the loss of Silverio is profound, as one of LA’s original birria artisans, whose deeply fragrant birria crossed over into a mainstream Angeleno audience, long before the rise of these new birria de res kings. The Moreno family, more than ever, are coming together to preserve Silverio’s legacy. “Even when he was in the hospital, all he could talk about was the restaurant,” says Rosio, “Make sure you check on the meat as it’s cooking, and don’t make customers wait,” he would say. “He even told me to go home and sleep when I was visiting him, so I’d be ready for work in the morning,” says Violeta.
“He was a good father, and a good man, and was so patient with all of us,” says Rosio. ”And the most important thing for us right now is that all his hard work will carry on, which is what he wanted us to do.”