TGI Fry-Day: Caesar Ensalada with Cotija Cheese Fritters from Birrieria Zaragoza
At Birrieria Zaragoza, it's all about the goat. As the sole meat on offer, everything else on the menu, from the freshly pressed and griddled tortillas to the defiantly goat-dripping-free tomato consommé, is designed to highlight it. But that doesn't mean it's going to stay that way.
Eldest son, Jonathan Zaragoza, recent culinary school grad and recipient of both TOC's 20 Chefs to Watch and Zagat's 30 Under 30, has big plans for Archer Park's beloved "Shrine to Birria Tatemada." After a stint as the garde manger at Sepia, Jonathan has returned full-time to his family's restaurant. Soon, his dad and other members of the staff are headed to Melrose Park to open a second outpost (you heard it here first, folks!), while Jonathan will stay back to manage the flagship location. The times, they are a-changin'.
Birria, of course, will remain Birrieria Zaragoza's main draw, but Jonathan is planning to add new dishes to the menu as inspiration strikes, including one he made for me the other night: a Caesar Ensalada with Cotija Cheese Fritters (tentatively $9.00). Jonathan has been experimenting for a while with this take on a classic Caesar salad. As Jonathon sees it, since Caesar Cardini invented "Caesar's Salad" in the 1920's at his eponymous restaurant in Tijuana, the salad is already Mexican. He just wants to make it more so by experimenting with the components.
Whole Baby Butterhead lettuce leaves sub in for the traditional romaine, and a dressing of equal parts olive oil and mayonnaise replaces the egg yolked original. Ripe avocado, lime juice, and cilantro join the traditional garlic and Worcestershire sauce. Instead of Parmesan cheese, julienned jicama is quick pickled in lime juice and piloncillo (a Mexican brown sugar) before being delicately draped over the dressed lettuce. Jicama already evokes tart apples, but these taste like the sweetest and crunchiest green apples I've never had.
And before I go and forget that this is a fried food column, I should mention the pièce de résistance: cotija cheese fritters. Imagine Red Lobster's Cheddar Bay Biscuits, subtract the inordinate greasiness and vaguely chemical taste, and you can begin to taste Jonathan's take on the salad's croutons. Piquant cotija cheese is stirred into a peppery biscuit dough that is melon-balled and dropped into hot oil until it floats golden. I found myself portioning each fritter, first in half and eventually into eights, just to be sure I had one of these rich-yet-somehow-light morsels in each bite.
And herein art imitates life: the understated fritter as subtle nucleus, quietly grounding and informing the salad, its influence ever present. So too Jonathan and his restaurant. I for one look forward to seeing more of what's to come of both.