Goat meat, steamed for six hours in its own juice, then served with lime, cilantro and onions on a homemade tortilla: The fact that we are even writing about this indicates how far American cuisine has come since the seventies, when “tacos” usually meant ground beef put in hard taco shells topped with hot sauce, ketchup and cheddar cheese. Yet even with Chicago’s large Mexican-American influence, birria is still a relatively unknown quantity. At about six dollars a plate, it is more than just a great tortilla stuffer. If served on a white tablecloth by a tuxedo-clad waiter, the goat meat and broth mix could rival some of the French consommés and Spanish soupas. Fortunately for us, it is almost always served with tortillas in small restaurants. Usually tucked away in Chicago’s many Mexican neighborhoods, these establishments are known as Birrias or Birrierias.
The best-known of these is The Birrieria Reyes De Ocotlan on 18th Street. Named after the region in the state of Jalisco, Mexico, where the art of steaming goat was perfected (kind of like Kentucky Fried Chicken in the U.S.), it is in the heart of Pilsen. Like any true Birrieria, they do not offer enchiladas, refried beans, nachos, tamales or beef, pork or chicken. The only dishes served here are goat meat (birria) as well as goat’s head (cabeza) and tongue (lengua). This is the way it should be. In fact, if you see a restaurant that advertises itself as a birria but serves the dish with beans and rice on the same menu as enchiladas it is not a true birrieria. This is usually reflected in the quality of the meat.
The traditional way to serve it is in a steaming bowl topped with onions and cilantro. It can be eaten as a soup, but the strong, rich flavor of the goat and broth is so pungent that it is best eaten in tandem with lime wrapped in a tortilla.
Although the restaurant did not have tortillas de harina on a recent visit, the unique taste of the goat’s meat is at its best on the more neutral flour tortilla. This is not to say that the flavor is overpowering. The word “goat” often conjures images of a thin, ornery animal that yields tough, stringy meat. But the long cooking process, combined with seasonings which include ancho, cascabel and morita peppers and a hint of cinnamon, yields a meat that is both tender and free of any “gamy” taste. In fact, it is more tender than most of the lamb in Greektown.
One large order of birria will yield at least ten flavorful tacos. Diners should be aware that birria is not only a gourmet meal at a fast food price, but that Mexican lore also states that birria can be eaten to relieve the symptoms of a hangover, making it perfect for those late night, early morning taco cravings.