By David Hammond
Driving south on Pulaski, between 48th and 49th, even if you’re looking hard for Birrieria Zaragoza, even if you’ve been there before, you might drive right past it. It’s a small, family-run restaurant, seating around twenty. This well-kept, humble place doesn’t have any flashy signage. It probably doesn’t need it, judging by the crowds inside who regularly chow down, elbow-to-elbow, on what might be the finest birria tatemada you’ll find anywhere (except, perhaps, Jalisco, Mexico).
The birria is prepared and served up by John-Juan, his wife Norma, and their children Jonathan, Erik, Tony and daughter Andie.
The hungry horde that comes to eat at Birrieria Zaragoza is frequently so large that a storefront next door is opened up for people to sit in several rows of chairs, like at the DMV, patiently waiting for a table or take-out.
In early 2016, the Zaragozas accepted the Jean Banchet award for “Best Ethnic Restaurant,” the first time this award was given to anyone. We strongly suspect this category was created specifically to honor the family’s work in perfecting birria tatemada in Chicago. Birria tatemada is goat meat, steamed for hours, slathered with mole sauce, and then roasted to create a beautiful blend of textures, crunchy crisp in places, lushly soft in others, with good spice but not so much that the goodness of the goat is obscured.
You can enjoy Zaragoza’s birria just a few ways: on a plate, taco or quesadilla. There are just a few other items on the menu: salsa, consommé, Mexican Coca-Cola. Those menu limitations are by design and by direction of Miguel Segura, the goat guru of La Barca, Jalisco, who years ago counseled John-Juan to do just one thing and do it right. That one thing—for both Seguro and Zaragoza families—is goat.
The Goat Guru and Lupe
John-Juan did his time in corporate America, working for companies like Hewitt Associates and the Tribune Company (where Norma also worked for fifteen years). He was away from his family a lot, working around the clock. He was not happy, telling us, “I woke up one morning and decided: I’m going to feed people.”
Thinking about the restaurants he might start, John-Juan recalled his years as a young boy in the United States:
“I came to the U.S. in June, 1968. Now and again, I’d ask my dad if we could get some birria. We’d go to see Ramon at Birrieria Reyes de Ocotlan. He was the only guy who would sell it. It was the traditional birria in consommé; it was a stew, and it was good, but it wasn’t what we were used to.”
After he left his white collar job, John-Juan was determined to go to La Barca, Jalisco, to seek counsel of Miguel Segura, the goat guru, and his wife, Lupe, who prepared the birria tatemada that John-Juan’s father often spoke of cherishing when he was a kid. Getting information out of Seguro, however, might not be easy—what chef wants to share his secrets? John-Juan, however, had the benefit of being his father’s son.
“My dad was a champion boxer. In his region of Jalisco, everybody knew him. He was just the nicest guy, but if you messed with him, you’d see the champion boxer. Usually, though, he was very mild-mannered. My dad would tell me, ‘I used to go to Miguel’s to help his father, because I was always hungry. We didn’t have a lot of money.’
“When my dad was little, he’d help tend the ovens, taking the goat meat out and putting on the mole. Sometimes the owner would give my dad a bone with some meat on it: ‘I was in heaven,’ my dad told me. I mentioned that to Miguel, and he said, ‘Oh yeah, I knew your dad.’
“We became friends. One day Miguel says, “When you go back to Chicago, you just want to feed people.
“‘Yeah, I don’t want to become a millionaire.’ I said. ‘I just want to share this food with Chicago.’
“Miguel said ‘Yes. I’ll help you.’
“He just asked that I not sell the recipe or set up a restaurant next to his.
“I learned everything: how to select the ovens, how to choose the goats and butcher them. Then one day, I’m about to go back to the U.S. Miguel and I are standing in front of his house. He asked ‘You learned everything already? You have everything you need?’
“I had learned a lot… but I didn’t have the recipes for the sauces. I figured he wouldn’t give it to me, so I said ‘I’ll try to make a sauce similar to yours.’ Miguel said, ‘Wait, Lupe didn’t give you the recipe?!’ He calls out ‘Lupe, show Juanito how you make the sauce!’”
Like many chefs, Miguel’s wife, Lupe, did not have a recipe written down. It was all in her head. She cooked by memory and she measured by hand. Lupe may even have made some small effort to withhold the recipe. She regularly asked John-Juan, with some irritation in her voice, “Where’s your wife,” and “What do you know about cooking?” Lupe was a tough cookie.
Eventually, however, John-Juan charmed Lupe. She agreed to make the sauce–perhaps the biggest secret of birria tatemada’s wonderful flavor. She let John-Juan watch as she put it together.
“She shows me how to make the sauce, and I say ‘I have a horrible memory. If it’s okay with you, I’d like to record it?’ She was blending so fast. I was videotaping all of it. She was talking and talking. I recorded it all.
“Walking back to my hotel, around sundown, it was getting dark and I thought to myself, ‘They can take my camera or my wallet but not the recipe.’ I actually put the video cassette here [he gestured down the front of his pants] and put my wallet in my camera bag. If someone robbed me they could take everything, but they wouldn’t get that tape.”
Not Drugs, Birria
Back in the States, John-Juan played the tape for Norma, who he says, “happens to have hands the same size as Lupe’s.” That was important because, as Norma explains:
“We don’t use measuring cups in Mexico. They use fingers or hands. We converted hand measurements to cups. Our son Jonathan fine-tuned the recipes to gram measurements.”
John-Juan was now ready to jump into the birria business with both feet. He had the recipe, and he had the motivation; all he needed was a product that’d appeal to his customers.
“We built the oven, and I was giving away goat to friends, to test it. Finally, my cousin says, ‘There’s a guy who wants to buy a pound of it.’ I think he met the guy in a parking lot to hand off a paper bag of the stuff. That probably looked a little suspicious. Others started hearing about it. After a while, we had a basement full of people, waiting for birria. We had a lot of in-and-out. I’d get maybe fifty people on a Sunday. We’d leave the door open and people would just come in.
“One day, the police come into the house. They’re shouting ‘Freeze! What’s your name? What are you doing here?!’
“‘This is my house,’ I said.
“They say, ‘We checked your [license] plates and they’re from Orland Park.’
“We had another house in Orland Park we were trying to sell; that’s why our plates said Orland Park. ‘Where are the drugs?’ they asked. ‘What are you moving here?’”
“They thought I was dealing drugs. I said, ‘Come on in guys. I’ll show you what I sell.’
“I gave them two birria tacos each.
“‘This is really good stuff,’ they said between bites. ‘You should open your own place.’
“That same night, I drove Jonathan over to the building where we’d start our first restaurant. ‘Okay,’ I said, ‘Let’s get to work.’”
“You Cook Like a Woman”
Jonathan was ready to get into full-time chef’s work, explaining,
“When I was a kid, I’d watch Julia Child and Jacques Pépin. I would just be… happy. They would put me to bed at night.
“When school was out, I was man of the house. First thing I ever cooked for my family was something I saw on the Food Network. Basically just a rotisserie chicken that you pull. You make a chipotle aioli, avocado, pepper jack cheese, a sandwich. I was like twelve. That was my first major cooking memory. It was good.
“I had to educate myself in this industry; I went to culinary school at Kendall for like two-and-a-half months, then I dropped out. It wasn’t for me; it felt like summer camp. Kids spending mommy and daddy’s money.”
Jonathan cooked at Trump Tower for a while. Then he did a few years at Masa Azul. One night, one of his diners at Masa Azul was Thomasina Miers, winner of BBC’s MasterChef competition in 2005, former model, prolific author and restaurateur. Miers said to Jonathan, “I’m going to tell you something and I want you to take it the right way. You cook like a woman. What I mean is you’re so nuanced and delicate with your flavors.”
Jonathan does have a deft hand with many non-Mexican foods, and he regularly hosts pop-up dinners focusing on the cuisines of other cultures, including India, Italy and the southern United States. These pop-ups came about, Jonathan explains,
“Because I have really good parents who want me to express myself. And some of the people who come to those dinners have never been here before; they say ‘We have to come back for the goat.’ That’s huge for us.”
When Jonathan opens his own restaurant—his dream—he may want to steer clear of fancy-pants dining. His restaurant will be, he vows:
“One hundred percent Mexican. I hate myself when I say stuff like microgreens. Say ‘microgreens’ to a Mexican, and he won’t know what you’re talking about.”
Conversion of the Vegans
Goat, though generally recognized as perhaps the most popular and widely eaten red meat in the world, is not always an easy sell to gringos. Says Norma, “People think of goat as a petting-zoo animal, not a food.”
But when people do try Zaragoza’s goat, even if they’re not normally carnivorous, they still become hooked. Says Norma:
“We had these two customers, and the wife had been vegan for six years. She would call in advance and Jonathan would make guacamole for her in the molcajete, which is totally vegan. She’d eat the consommé, which is vegetarian, and tortillas. But she said that when she came with her husband, the aroma of the goat from across the table made her want to try it. One day, she confessed she’d become a goat-a-tarian. She said, ‘I eat nothing from an animal except goat. This is the only animal protein I eat.’”
This was just one of several vegan/vegetarian-to-carnivore conversion experiences witnessed at Birrieria Zaragoza; “Our record,” says Jonathan, “was two in one week.”
Just One Thing
Over the years, we’ve seen Birrieria Zaragoza experiment with different menu items. When people go to a Mexican restaurant, they’re usually expecting rice and beans. But according to John-Juan, the goat guru recommended a very small menu:
“Birria is served in Mexico during special events, like quinceañera [the traditional Mexican celebration of a girl’s fifteenth birthday]. It’s served with beans and rice. Our focused menu stems from Miguel Segura, my teacher in Jalisco. The reason he does only birria is that his spot is small. I wanted to stick with something already proven. It was challenging. People ask for beans or rice or chips, and I apologize and tell them we’re very limited on space, which is true, but I also want to stay aligned with what my teacher said: ‘Start small. Go as small as you can. Let guests determine your expansion. But be careful, because things happen when you expand.’”
And perhaps, as Norma explains, there’s really no need to go beyond the goat:
“When we started, we had several traditional Mexican dishes. We found that goat was the star of the show. Even though we served other dishes like chilaquiles, pozole and enchiladas, people were constantly coming in asking for goat. We had a lot of food waste, because everyone was asking for the birria tatemada.”
A few years ago, briefly, the Zaragoza family had a place in Melrose Park. What happened? Turns out, the Melrose Park location may have been too successful.
“We realized we couldn’t be in both places at the same time. One of the reasons I quit corporate America was because of the hurry-up rat race. Now we had to go to Melrose Park and then come back. The work-life balance was back to the way it was in corporate America. It didn’t feel good anymore. The growth at the new place was going straight up. But we kept being pulled back to our first location. I remembered what my mentor said, ‘Focus on just one thing and do it right.’”
That single-minded strategy is working. In 2014, Food Network magazine called Birrieria Zaragoza “The Top Taco in Illinois.” The restaurant has been honored by visits from Andrew Zimmern and received recognition from Rachel Ray, Steve Dolinsky, Chicago magazine, Chicago Tribune and many other broadcast and print outlets.
About the recently received Banchet Award for Best Ethnic Restaurant, John-Juan reflects:
“With most awards, we’d be thankful, of course, but this one really hit home because of what he [Banchet] believed in: the family restaurant. I thought: ‘This feels right.’ They’re talking to us.”
If you’ve never tried goat, or even if perhaps you’re mostly vegetarian/vegan and yearn for a little healthy meat now and again, the Zaragoza family will show you just how wonderful steamed goat roasted in mole can be.
Birrieria Zaragoza is located at 4852 South Pulaski.
Author: David Hammond
Dining and Drinking Editor for Newcity, David also writes a weekly food column for Wednesday Journal in Oak Park and is a frequent contributor of food/drink and travel pieces to the Chicago Tribune, Plate Magazine and other publications. David has also contributed chapters to several books, including “Street Food Around the World,” “Street Food,” and “The Chicago Food Encyclopedia.” Contact: email@example.com