Expertly roasted goat shank isn't celebrated nearly enough. I discovered this in Chicago where—having spent several days eating my way around the downtown Loop and nearby neighborhoods (with wayward pit stops for rib tips and hot links)—I made my way to Archer Heights for a midday meal at Birreria Zaragoza.
A small, family-run Mexican restaurant flanked by Polish-named suburban streets 10 miles southwest of the downtown scene, Zaragoza is not exactly a marquee name when it comes to Chi-city dining. But it's certainly on the map, a local favorite and Midway layover destination that offers a truly regional taste of Mexican cuisine with equal doses of humility and elegance.
The birrieria opened for business in 2007 when Juan Zaragoza and his family renovated a space on South Pulaski Road. Zaragoza, whose previous occupation was in human resources at the Chicago Tribune, had no restaurant experience. Yet, a longing for one of the more memorable foods of his childhood in Jalisco, Mexico drove him to spend two years in training and four years in practice before opening his doors to deliver one great thing to Chicagoland: birria tatemada.
"It was a form of nostalgia," explained Jonathan Zaragoza, Juan's son and the weekday chef and manager at his family's restaurant, "a way to get back to his roots and the memories that it brought back, because he couldn't find it out here."
He did find it in his hometown of La Barca, where the Segura family (yes, their name really is segura) had been preparing birria from the same recipe for just over 100 years. After multiple flights from Chicago to Jalisco (some with 12-year-old Jonathan and all with a camcorder and notebook in tow) Juan perfected his own recipe and began serving as many as 3,000 people at once as a private caterer.
After his serious study, he was able to perfectly execute goat. Birria tatemada, which at Zaragoza translates roughly to "roasted goat," reflects the family's inspired adaptation of Jalisco's native birria, one that follows a devoted cooking process.
Every weekday, Jonathan gets into work by 8 a.m. He butchers roughly two goats per day in house, a skill he developed as an apprentice to The Butcher & The Larder's Rob Levitt. The goat meat is rubbed with salt and steamed, bone-in, for up to five hours. Then, each tender part is marinated in an ancho-based red mole, mixed with a certain bit of lard, and placed into a gas oven to roast (the Zaragozas know how to handle a wood-burning oven, but aren't able to cook with one in the restaurant). Before service, each piece is generously dressed with a tomato-based consomme similar to the broth served by Miguel Segura in La Barca.
Zaragoza's birria is sold by the plate, but many servings are plated by the part. I was lucky enough to try the shank (also referred to as the pistola) during my visit and have not tasted finer chivo in my day.
Each bite from the bone was beautifully structured, the edges slightly crisp, the meat thoroughly juicy, and the occasional bit of rendered fat redolent of a distinctly goat-y flavor. Framed by the sweet but subtle consomme and mild mole, the natural taste of goat meat was pronounced in a way that was hardly gamy and wholly savory.
"If people want shoulder, they can have shoulder," notes Jonathan in the closest thing to a boast during our conversation. "We obviously can't accommodate every request, but I can always recommend another part. Ultimately, I guess the customer wins because of my pickiness."
This attention to detail extends to everything else at Zaragoza, a space that could easily be home to a second-rate greasy spoon but hums with pride and professionalism under the family's care. Each plate of birria comes with a short stack of house-made, hand-pressed corn tortillas and an array of freshly prepared condiments, including chopped onion, cilantro, a sweet and mild salsa roja, roasted chiles, and limes.
The tortillas, wonderfully tender and sweet in the way that only a great corn tortilla can be, are as much a highlight as the meat they accompany. One could easily find time to swing by for a handful of these and walk away with a perfectly satisfying snack, if not for the fact that birria tacos are only $2.50 a pop, and birria-and-chese quesadillas are only $3.50.
The Zaragozas have committed to expanding their menu only when new additions prove to be as singularly delicious as their birria tatemada. Jonathan himself would like to someday have a full-blown, full-service restaurant, but for the time being this cozy space on South Pulaski remains a birrieria.
This isn't a bad thing. In its own state of simple devotion, Birrieria Zaragoza can already be counted on the short list of best restaurants in the city.