De la Familia

Juan and Jonathan Zaragoza in their restaurant (Ron Kaplan)

Once in a while, you run across a little gem of a family restaurant that treats its patrons like family. Birrieria Zaragoza is that kind of restaurant, and the first time I visited, I had a hard time believing that they hadn’t confused me for a regular. On my second visit, I was one.

As you walk in the door, you are greeted by the smiling face of proprietor Juan Zaragoza, who is wielding an oversized cleaver that in any other context might inspire fear. Under his knife is perfectly charred free-range Indiana goat, ready for tacos.

In less than five years, the Zaragozas’ chopping block has been worn down into a bowl: it stands as a monument to how seriously they take their signature dish. Their birría–a Mexican goat stew–follows an unusual recipe that Juan learned as an apprentice during trips back to Jalisco, his home state and the origin of the dish. The meat is salted and steamed, then seasoned with chiles and roasted at high heat. Rather than stewing the product, as is common, the Zaragozas ladle a homemade tomato-based broth over the meat as it is served.

The result is beautiful. Their birría is at once juicy and crispy without being tough, perfectly spiced without being too hot, and richly meaty without being overly gamey. Even better, it lacks the greasiness that can characterize stewed birría.

The restaurant’s small size, its open kitchen, and its short menu all conspire to produce a meticulously fresh dish. The goat is chopped to order, allowing you to request a cut, or to specify whether or not you’d like the tastier (but messier) joints. The homemade tortillas are deliciously thick and smooth, and the recipe for the mild, smoky hot sauce is a closely guarded family secret.

Juan’s son Jonathan was our server both times we visited. Though not the primary chef, he is well versed in Mexican cuisine, and is preparing to teach culinary school classes. He offered a compelling history of the restaurant and of the dish and showed us around their unfinished new location next door. The new space will allow them to offer tables to more than a few parties at a time, while still, he assured us, preserving the prominence of the kitchen counter where the dish is finished.

The menu is simple. The birría can be ordered in single tacos, and in plates of two sizes ($6 or $8.50). It comes with the standard toppings: cilantro, limes, dried chiles, onions, and homemade hot sauce, as well as an unlimited supply of tortillas to soak it all up.

Don’t bring vegetarians, though. While the restaurant offers a few small sides like quesadillas, they are appropriate only as simple sides to accompany the goat stew, and couldn’t easily constitute a meal.

Birrieria Zaragoza is in a relatively quiet and run-down stretch of traffic-heavy Pulaski Road. It is in Archer Heights, making it a long drive and a longer ride on the 47 bus for Hyde Parkers, but it’s worth it. Among those to whom I have spoken to about it, it has been a unanimous pick for best Chicago birriería, and is hard to beat for the price. The restaurant is busy, as it has achieved something of a cult following from friends and through a series of good reviews.
Birrieria Zaragoza, 4852 S. Pulaski Rd. BYOB. Monday, Wednesday—Friday, 10am—7pm; Saturday—Sunday, 8am—4pm. (773)978-4881