The first time I heard about Birrieria Zaragoza was December of 2008. Visiting home for the holidays, I grabbed lunch with a couple of fellow food nerds who told me that whatever I did, I had to get down to Archer Heights to check out this birria place. "The real deal," I was told. "Absolutely perfect," they assured me. I'm pretty sure "One of the best restaurants in the city" was thrown in for good measure. Of course, it didn't happen. It never does. But it went on the short, short, short list for future visits.
Fast forward to this past July. Back in Chicago for two weeks, I'm looking for an excuse to truck down to the south side from Park Ridge, where my family lives. When it's decided that we'll be heading down to Hyde Park to visit some dear friends, I figure that's close enough and start angling for a goaty lunch stop. I'm distracted by old friends and little kids. We're running behind and in a hurry. The visit isn't nearly long enough and I don't get to sit and chat with the owners for details about their process -- details I'm told they're all too happy to share with anybody who expresses an interest. But the trip is nonetheless completely worthwhile, because there's this goat, you see, and it's everything it's been made out to be.
Birrieria Zaragoza is everything you could possibly ask for in a little family-run operation. They're passionate and obsessive devotees of birria who learned their technique back in the mother country -- Jalisco, to be more specific -- later perfecting it in a backyard cinder block pit before finally opening the tiny and incredibly welcoming storefront that now houses their operation. It's humble and spartan but meticulously maintained, brightly painted and staffed by some of the friendliest folks you'll meet. After a car trip that runs far longer than anticipated, we're just trying to settle the kids down, so I immediately order the only item on the menu other than the birria, a cheese quesadilla. It's up on the small whiteboard nailed to the wall, beneath birria by the pound, birria in a taco and birria on a platter. They're all about the birria, you see, and I can already smell it. Having just completed a little birria survey of my own, I can almost taste it. Or at least I think I can. Because I'm about to be shown that the dish can be better than I'd previously imagined.
My ladylove, who good-naturedly humors these Quixotic excursions from time to time, is done before our food hits the table. I don't think she's so much into the goat to begin with, but even if she were, it's hot, she's exhausted and both kids are cranky. Still, she puts the game face on and the fact that we're catching up with a dear old friend helps immensely. And then there's this goat, you see.
|Birria Tatemada||Dominic Armato|
The folks at Zaragoza take a bit of an unusual tack in preparing their birria, and it's what makes it so special. It's a multi-step process here, a far cry from the run-of-the-mill approach that ends up as spent stew meat in a greasy, acrid broth. Sometimes that spent stew meat in a greasy, acrid broth can hit the spot, but one wouldn't typically classify birria as a refined dish. At Zaragoza, however, they serve birria tatemada, which is first steamed and then roasted, taking on a light coat of a chile-based mole in between. The roasting adds texture and depth, creating caramelized char on the edges that contrasts with the more tender, succulent bits within. Rather than doctored drippings, the broth doesn't contain any goat at all. It's a light, spiced tomato affair designed to enhance the character of the meat without getting uppity, and indeed, it knows its place. The tortillas, freshly pressed, slightly puffed on the flat top and piping hot are a worthy accompaniment, as are the sliced limes, chopped onion and cilantro, whole dried chiles de arbol and a housemade hot sauce, not the least bit tangy or sweet but very, very minimal and expressive of the mix of dried chiles contained within. The whole package almost makes you forget that this is a dish so often horribly out of balance. Instead, Zaragoza's birria evokes a sense of refinement that transcends the humility of the dish's origins and the converted corner diner where it's being prepared for you.
Birria aficionados know all of the cuts, don't hesitate to request their favorites, and the Zaragozas are all too happy to indulge them. I'm not a birria aficionado, though this meal makes a strong case that I should become one. What cuts of meat did I receive? I have no idea. I'm trying to sink into my goat while ensuring that more of my kid's quesadilla ends up in his mouth than on the floor or, just as likely, his hair. That looks like a rib, there. But that aside, it looks like meat. Beautifully caramelized, tender, succulent meat. I should be on edge. The little ones are on the verge of a meltdown. My ladylove looks ready to attempt an escape by throwing herself through the plate glass window. But I'm sucking down chivo and a little lost in my own world, because there's this goat, you see, and it's something very special.
|4852 S. Pulaski Rd.|
|Chicago, IL 60632|
|Mon||10:00 AM - 7:00 PM|
|Wed - Fri||10:00 AM - 7:00 PM|
|Sat - Sun||8:00 AM - 4:00 PM|