Credit: Danielle A. Scruggs

On a rainy Thursday afternoon, a late lunch rush is winding down at Birrieria Zaragoza, the nine-year-old Archer Heights restaurant that specializes in birria tatemada. That’s a very regionally specific variant of the slow-cooked goat dish from Jalisco, in which the caprid isn’t stewed as in most versions, but rather rubbed with mole and roasted slowly until the meat falls apart. Whenever anybody asks me the impossible question “What’s your favorite restaurant?,” I always point them in the direction of the Zaragoza family—it’s failsafe, because this delicious dish is the only thing you can order at their restaurant (besides quesadillas made with freshly pressed tortillas). And because their powers over the goat aren’t diminished by making, say, posole, or cochinita pibil, or carne en su jugo, they do it exceptionally well.

Because it’s all goat all the time, there isn’t always a great variety of ingredients on hand to make to make comida for the seven to 17 people working on any given day in the tiny restaurant. So Jonathan Zaragoza goes shopping for it. “They like to eat really simple,” says the chef, who returned to the family business last July after a stint at Lakeview’s late Budlong. “Most of the time it’s some sort of bean and then some sort of meat. It changes daily. Whatever they want, basically, they get. When I cook staff meal, I cook like my mom does at home or my grandma.”

Today he’s prepared frijoles de olla (“pot of beans”) with creamy yellow mayocobas, and a stew, or guisado, of pork short ribs braised in an ancho-quajillo salsa made with roasted tomatillos and tomatoes. There’s queso fresco he made that morning. And of course there’s the warm corn tortillas served with every order of birria.

He calls out to sous chef Jose Cocone, who’s in a prep kitchen in the rear butchering goats, “Comida para la banda!” (“Food for the band”). Jonathan’s brother Tony is already at the counter with “masa specialist No. 1” Elvira Rosas and “masa specialist No. 2” Mari Fregoso, all working on plates supplemented with chopped onion and cilantro and dried arbol chiles. The bean broth has a remarkable savory flavor given it’s only seasoned with garlic, onion, and salt. The rib meat slips off the bones. The staff dredge tortillas through the thick, smoky salsa.

“We’ll talk about the next day’s staff meal when we’re eating,” Jonathan says. Sometimes he makes tortas milanesa, or pickled pigs’ feet tostadas, or enchiladas. Other times everybody just wants pasta. But more often than not comida is dictated by the cravings of Jonathan’s dad, Juan (aka John), who finally sits down to a plate after manning the register. By the end of today’s meal, Friday’s comida will have been decided: aguayon en salsa roja y frijolitos (sirloin in salsa with beans) and coctel de camaron (shrimp cocktail).

“The only challenge when Jonathan cooks like this is the customers see us eating and want to order this too,” Juan says. “A lot of it is driven by how busy it is. If it’s not too crazy busy, then it’s more of an elaborate thing. It’s like, What do I want? Do I want more customers or do I want a crazy meal?”

Unlike many restaurants where family meal is a collective effort, Jonathan is the only one who prepares it here. (On his son’s days off, Juan orders takeout.)

“John-Juan does not care” about the cost of the staff meals, Jonathan says. “He loves good food, and he likes taking care of his people.”   v

Credit: Danielle A. Scruggs
Credit: Danielle A. Scruggs
Credit: Danielle A. Scruggs

Frijoles de olla

1,405 g mayocoba beans, rinsed
7,000 g water
100 g white onion, cut in big chunks
Salt to taste and finish

Combine everything in a pot and cook until tender over medium heat, about two hours. (Do not allow it to boil.) Season with salt. Remove garlic and onion.

Pork guisado

2,351 g Saint Louis ribs, cut in one-inch chunks
1,600 g tomatillos
515 g tomatoes
90 g raw garlic, skins on
95 g guajillo chile, toasted
10 g arbol chile, toasted
900 g water

In a cast-iron skillet roast garlic, tomatoes, tomatillos, and chiles separately. Combine with water in a blender. Blend and season to taste with salt and sugar. In a heavy-bottomed pot, add canola oil and heat on high. Season ribs with salt, then sear and brown them, working in batches. Combine salsa with pork and simmer until meat is tender. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed.

Queso fresco

1,956 g whole milk
50 g vinegar
40 g salt

Heat milk in a stainless steel pot to 180 degrees Fahrenheit. Add vinegar and stir until curds separate. Remove from heat and season curds with salt. Strain. Press cheese and refrigerate.

Zaragoza patriarch Juan, pictured right
Zaragoza patriarch Juan, pictured rightCredit: Danielle A. Scruggs
Credit: Danielle A. Scruggs