They’ve Got Your Goat: Mexican goat stew lurks in a quiet corner of South Chicago

(Sam Bowman)

As a recent Michael Pollanite convert from vegetarianism, I have found myself surprisingly apathetic towards many kinds of meat. But I am drawn to goat. It has a uniquely intense, gamey flavor that makes the meat-eating seem worth it. It is also, conveniently, one of the only meat animals that is never factory raised, since goats are very efficient foragers, and demand in the U.S. is not high enough to warrant a factory farm’s efficiency of scale.

This led me to take an interest in birria, a Mexican goat stew, when I was in Jalisco not long ago. The dish deserves the title of the state’s best culinary export, but is sadly overshadowed by a certain spirit produced near the town of Tequila. It is a slow-cooked broth of smoked chilis, and usually features goat. Though true to its name (birria is Spanish for “junk”), and to its working-class origins, other meats from beef to iguana make occasional appearances. The stew is conventionally served in a bowl piled high with fresh onions and cilantro, and eaten with fresh corn tortillas.

South Chicago’s Birrierías Ocotlán serves a fine bowl of birria. Their birria isn’t the smokey, gamey melt-in-your mouth ambrosia of Jaliscan birria. The vinegary broth was mild–the acid balanced out the gameyness of the meat (all goat), and the heat of the chilis was only quietly smoky. Their birria still can satisfy the strongest craving for goat.

Do not make the mistake we narrowly avoided. Do not take a vegetarian, or even a squeamish meat eater to Birrierías Ocotlán. The menu consisted of birria, birria to go, and a few unfamiliar sorts of taco. If you don’t object to its offerings, though, Birrierías Ocotlán makes it hard to leave hungry. The tortillas are free, and the small order of birria–enough for an almost overwhelmingly large dinner–is only $6.

Horchata was their signature drink–a sweet milky drink made with rice, and also known as agua de arroz. It was rich and cinnamony, though sadly it was their only drink not poured from a soda can.

The red and green salsas at the table were perfectly good, and complemented the tacos well. The salsas stood alongside a large basket of papery toasted dry árbol chilis. We never worked out quite what to do with them, and the other three patrons in the restaurant took no interest in theirs. The tortillas served with the birria were underwhelming. They were stale, and reheating them on the griddle only made them more brittle.

The space was small. Ocotlán had only five tables which were inexplicably numbered, one through five, as well as three blissfully numberless bar stools by the open kitchen.

The restaurant had the obligatory portrait of the food, a life-sized goat painted on the glass front door. The decor on the wall was also all that one could ask for in a birriería; portraits of Mary, maps of Ocotlán, and a tiny TV showing Spanish-language programming about wildebeest. By the way, if you are aiming to find any specific Chicago birriería, take down its name carefully. Birrierías Ocotlán is one of three unrelated birria restaurants on the South Side bearing the name Ocotlán, after the Jaliscan city.

Ocotlán is quite conveniently located, only steps away from the 87th Street Station on Metra Electric’s South Chicago branch. Remain wary of confusion though, as the restaurant is near only the easternmost of the four Metra stations along 87th Street’s vast length.
Birrierías Ocotlán. 8726 S. Commercial Ave. Entrées $5-7. 8am-8pm daily. (773)978-4881.

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