I Fucking Love This Restaurant features writers’ favorite places that feed communities around the country.
Almost 12 years ago, I pulled up to a storefront with hand-painted signage in Chicago’s southwest side Archer Heights neighborhood. My friends and I heard something about roasted goat, “birria tatemada,” a super specific regional variant of the more widespread braised stew originally from the Mexican state of Jalisco. That’s all we knew about the place, and it appeared that it was all we’d find out that afternoon since it had closed hours earlier.
As we peered through the window, a head poked out from the kitchen behind a five-seat counter, and before we knew it, we were ushered inside by a young cook named Jonathan. He’d run out of goat for the day, but he let us try the roasted tomato and arbol salsa he’d just pounded and scraped out of a molcajete. He told us his dad had opened the place a few months earlier, after years of perfecting his birria tatemada recipe in a cement oven he’d built in their family’s backyard.
When I met him, Jonathan was in culinary school, and his dad, Juan (aka John) was a corporate middle manager in a medical supply company, with an inordinate love for goats, particularly the ones he grew up eating in the little town of La Barca. As a toddler, he’d beg his mom for a peso whenever the birrierio came by lugging a wooden box full of roasted chivo or goat, fresh from a hot clay oven, its smoky meat perfumed by the ancho mole and maguey leaves that swaddled it overnight. That peso would buy a single taco, moistened with a touch of tomato consommé, a midday snack that would haunt him like a Mexican madeleine, until he decided, at the age of 45, to open a restaurant.
If this reads like a dog-eared page from the mid-life crisis handbook, know that a decade later, whenever someone asks of me the impossible — “What’s the best restaurant in Chicago?” — my answer is reflexively Birrieria Zaragoza.
Juan and his wife, Norma, and kids Andie, Erik, and Tony, beat the usual odds stacked against restaurant industry greenhorns for many reasons. For one thing, they’re specialists, doing one thing incredibly well. It helps that no one else in Chicago — or almost anywhere outside of La Barca — does birria in this way either. And then there’s Jonathan, who’s grown into one of the most promising young chefs in Chicago, operating strictly in the old world birria tradition by day, and by night throwing down monthly multi-course family-style modern Mexican pop-ups.
But here’s the best thing that happens at Birrieria Zaragoza: You enter and (hopefully) take an empty stool at the counter in front of the butcher’s block. John — or Jonathan, Andie, Tony, or Erik — is there with cleaver in hand, and you tell him what you want: shank meat, shoulder, belly, or maybe a surtido; a little bit of everything, including the liver and the machito, a kind of ropy sausage braided together from the offal. He selects the pieces and meticulously chops them, plates them, and ladles the consommé on top. You have a warmer full of freshly pressed handmade tortillas to the side, plus chopped onion, cilantro, and dried arbol chilies. You can get a freshly griddled quesadilla, but other than that, there’s nothing else on the menu. There’s nothing else you need.
What makes this experience singular is the effortless, ineffable hospitality that bathes the place in a toasty, ancho-rubbed glow. Everybody gets a ‘Bienvenido’ when the door chimes ring. Juan is like a bartender dispensing plates of birria with easy familiarity. Bands sometimes play on a stage in front of sofas in the adjacent waiting room. Sometimes you have to wait.
I basked in this warmth in its ancestral home last summer, walking with Juan from his old house in La Barca to the mercado, a stroll that would’ve taken a fraction of the time if he didn’t stop and chat with nearly everyone he encountered. From Ambrosio at the corner store and the shoeshine guy in the zocalo, to the birrerios that operate on the perimeter of the market, they all knew him as a kid; his dad was a well-known professional boxer and baseball player. “I couldn’t get away with anything,” he says.
But it’s inside the market where Juan, as an adult apprentice, learned his trade. Like Birreria Zaragoza, Birreria Miguel is a family operation, led by 64-year-old Miguel Segura, who stables his goats in a pen behind the killing floor adjacent to his home.
We arrived there one afternoon to observe the process, which included building the Encino oak wood fires in conical clay ovens, butchering goats, salting the meat, rubbing it with brick-red mole, and wrapping it in maguey leaves. The chivo was stacked in the oven, sealed with a thick, layer of wet, gray earth. The next morning, the meat was taken out of the oven, wrapped in butcher paper, and trucked to the mercado.
People were already seated at the counter when the meat arrived. We sat in front of Segura’s grandson Osvaldo, who cleavers the meat to order on a tree trunk and arranges it on the plate before drizzling it with consommé and adding chopped onion and lime wedges. Doña Lupe, Segura’s wife, wanted to know if the chivo tastes better at Birrieria Miguel’s or in Chicago.
“Tell her hers does,” Juan whispered to me.
We had other adventures. We drove to Michoacan and distilled a mezcal with birria (stepping far outside the parameters of either tradition). We spent a day with Diana Kennedy, the authority on Mexican cooking, hanging on to her every word at her house in the piney Sierra Madre mountains. In Oaxaca, I watched Juan reach into a smoking, maguey-lined hole in the ground and offer a scrap of roasted chivo to a scrawny farm puppy with the same heart and intention that he constructs a surtido at his own counter in Chicago.
Juan’s legacy may end up being the birria tatemada that he’s introduced to Chicago, painstakingly recreated over 2000 miles from its home. But his effortless generosity is the intangible tradition that’s been handed down from father to son. It’s built into the DNA of Birrieria Zaragoza. It’s what I remember most about my first visit a dozen years ago, when I’d first been let into a new neighborhood restaurant long after the doors had been locked and all the goat had been sold.
Mike Sula is a senior writer for Chicago Reader. His work has been published in Harper’s, Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times and NPR’s The Salt. His story “Chicken of the Trees” about eating city squirrels won the James Beard Foundation’s 2013 M.F.K. Fisher Distinguished Writing Award. He is the senior editor for Kitchen Toke, the magazine of culinary cannabis.
Jim Newberry is a freelance photographer from Chicago, now based in Los Angeles. He shoots assignments for magazines, record labels, and book publishers, and regularly exhibits street photography at a variety of galleries.