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Sunday Morning Ritual

It's not hard to spot your bowl of Gallardos' birria ($7.50) coming out of the kitchen, snaking around the families filling the center of the dining room, gliding toward a soft landing below your nose. The stew is the red of a tracking beacon — visible from 20 feet, if not from the top of a mountain — its aroma almost as potent. When the bowl slides into place and you dip your face into the steamy aura, you can inhale and map the contours of your sinuses, a sort of Scoville MRI.

Juan Gallardo, who came to San Francisco from San Juan de los Lagos, Jalisco, and his family have run their Mission restaurant for 51 years, and only its facade hints at the decades. On a weekend morning, the interior, with its high ceilings and walls paneled in blown-up movie stills, is the kind of place where you can bathe an addled head in white noise, or let your 4- and 6-year-olds spin around the tables while ignoring them for a few seconds, mopping up a plate of huevos rancheros with soft, corn-sweet tortillas.

The weekends-only lamb birria at Gallardos glows like a beacon.
Gil Riego Jr.
The weekends-only lamb birria at Gallardos glows like a beacon.

There are birrias so thick they could be mistaken for moles, but Gallardos' is an elegant, almost transparent soup. Its brilliant color comes naturally, roasted tomatoes simmered with fistfuls of dried chiles — guajillos for fruitiness, New Mexicos for heat. Before you cover the surface of the soup with chopped onions and cilantro, then squeeze in a bit of lime, stop and sip the broth as it is: The chiles, blackened on the comal first, give it a supple smokiness — not chipotles' concentrated flavor, more of an honest sense of the flame. And while the soup is clear, its flavors coalesce and throb on the palate, backed by the meat and musk of lamb. Pluck out a few hunks of the shredded lamb and roll them into a tortilla, sprinkling on onions and a few drops of the chile de arbol salsa, just because it's there. Alternate bites with a spoonful of the broth, letting its fire flare and subside. This is a Sunday morning ritual to be anticipated as hotly as the Saturday night before.

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