Becoming Part of the Family at Chef Jonathan Zaragoza's Three Generations Dinner at Masa Azul

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[Photographs: Joe Roy]

As we've made abundantly clear, we're big fans of chef Jonathan Zaragoza's refreshing take on Mexican cuisine, both at the family-run Birrieria Zaragoza in Archer Heights and more recently as head chef at Masa Azul in Logan Square. So when I got the chance to attend a collaboration dinner featuring him and his mother and grandmother, I couldn't say no. Whether talking with Jonathan or one of the other family members at "the goat place," as my daughter calls it, I've always been struck by how much the collective family dynamic permeates the Zaragozas' food.

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Once everyone was situated at the long communal table, Jonathan and his mother and grandmother took a few minutes to set the stage. Jonathan showed interest in cooking at a young age, preparing scrambled eggs with mom's help at three and creating full Food Network inspired family meals for the family at twelve. The dishes this night held more significance: they are among the ones the Zaragoza women prepare nightly for the family, ones that Jonathan remembers fondly. However, rather than recreate the dishes by rote, Jonathan couldn't help himself, and nostalgia imbued with inventiveness made for a delicious evening.

Dinner began with a plate of Guacamole, and Chef Jonathan expounded on the importance of developing a good balance: "you start with avocado, which is fatty, so you need acid, in the form of lime juice, to balance that out. Then, you need some heat, here with serranos, which you offset with red onion. Finally, cilantro adds herbal, limey notes that lighten the dish." Couldn't have said it better myself, and this spicy, nicely salted version is up there with the best I've ever had.

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Rather than serving the guacamole with chips, Jonathan used Chicharonnes tossed with salt and crushed arbol chili powder. Jonathan's mom beamed over this heavy-prep component, and Jonathan explained the process: "Rather than simply buying prepared chicharrónes, the kitchen braised whole pig skin until tender, peeled the fat layer off, and cut the skin into squares." For my part, watching the transformation from pre-fried translucent, Golden Grahams-looking squares to popcorn-puffed golden knots was an experience I'm still recalling.

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Next up was a pair of Taquitos, stuffed simply with mashed red potatoes. A favorite dish of our editor, Nick, these can be found all over town, but the details here set them apart. The tortillas are handmade and pressed thin, ensuring they are crisp throughout. Jocoque is substituted for the oft used crema, and crispy red cabbage is a textural and flavor improvement over standard iceberg lettuce. 

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The Chile Relleno en Caldillo was a dish often served at the Zaragoza table, but according to his mom, Chef Jonathan gave it his own spin even as a child. "We always served the white rice on the side, but Jonathan always stirred his into the broth." Indeed, the broth-logged rice increases the comfort of the already inviting dish, and the whole thing, from the crispy, cheese-stuffed poblano to the oregano-spiked tomato broth, tastes like the Mexican answer to grilled cheese and tomato soup. A version of this, my wife has told me in no uncertain terms, is to be gracing our wintertime table very soon.

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Flan is hard to get right: all too often, a rubbery-surfaced custard gives way to a cottage cheese curdled center and a watery base. No thanks. Jonathan's take rights all these wrongs: the top gives slight resistance, a la pudding skin, and the center is as creamy as the best crème brûlée. Whether from the filling or the well-caramelized dulce de leche sauce, a slight tang lightens the dish and seals the meal nicely.

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The astute reader will notice the lack of meat in this menu—a choice, chef Jonathan explained, that reflects family meals growing up. "Feeding a family of seven, it was hard to get meat into meals all the time, hence the use of carbohydrates here." This simple explanation capped the meal with perspective. Food is clearly important to the Zaragozas: both as a physical link between the generations and as a real way to keep the family sustained, moving ever-forward. I feel fortunate that I had the opportunity to pull up a chair to their family table, if only for a night.

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