Juan Zaragoza was just a toddler in 1969, when he left La Barca, Jalisco. But he never forgot the midafternoon cries of the cleaver-wielding birrieros, who carried big wooden boxes of steamed and roasted goat meat on their heads through the streets of the small Mexican city.
“As we were eating beans or whatever we had, all of a sudden from the street you could hear ‘Birria! Birria!'” he recalls. “So I used say, ‘Mom, give me a peso.'” That bought him a small portion, enough for two tacos, with onion and cilantro and a squirt of lime—a luxurious and status-conferring snack that not every little kid could afford.
Birria is a regional Jalisciense variant of the more widespread barbacoa, meat traditionally slow-cooked in a pit. Originally goat was wrapped in pencas de maguey, or agave leaves, set over a vessel to collect the drippings, and buried in an underground pit where it steamed for hours over hot wood-fired rocks, absorbing the essence of the leaves. When finished the meat was portioned and served either added to a consomme made with the drippings or seca (“dry”), with the consomme on the side.These days ovens have replaced the pits.
Like barbecueing in the U.S., the process of making birria varies and attracts fierce partisans, and these variations have found their way to Chicago, where birrieros hail from La Barca and other cities such as Ocotlan and Arandas. La Barca is known for its birria tatemada, a term that comes from the verb tatemar, “to toast” or “to char,” and is most frequently used in reference to chiles. For birria tatemada the meat is seasoned with mole, then browned in a second oven or on a griddle before serving.
The Zaragoza family settled in Pilsen, but Juan’s father, a celebrated former boxer and ballplayer, made sure the family’s ties to home were strong. On trips back the family’s first stop was Birrieria Miguel, a venerable counter in the market presided over by Miguel Segura, a birriero who learned his craft from his father. “This guy, he’s an artist,” says Zaragoza. “He opens at nine o’clock every day. He’s got 40 people already waiting before he arrives.”
Meanwhile, in Chicago Zaragoza developed an almost equally fervent passion for Al’s Beef and played bass in a Spanish pop band that toured the U.S., both while studying business at UIC. He married and had children, bought a house in West Lawn, and embarked on a career in customer service for a series of large corporations. About five years ago the itch to do something on his own became overwhelming, and he decided he wanted to bring a bit of La Barca to Chicago.
His father formally introduced him to Segura, and on a subsequent visit he spent two weeks studying under the master. Segura raises, butchers, and slaughters his own goats, or chivos, steaming them in red-oak-fired adobe brick ovens in his backyard. Each morning Zaragoza would accompany Segura to his birrieria, where he’d sit down at the counter for a plate. Afterward he’d join his mentor at work, learning how to differentiate the cuts and serve them to discerning customers with more than passing familiarity with the goat’s anatomy. These “experts”—Zaragoza refers to them as birrieros also—would vie for cuts like costillas (ribs), espinazo (spine), or la pistola, the handgun-shaped foreleg that he calls a kingly joint: “It’s like a trophy,” he says.
Back in Chicago he built a cement oven in his backyard—even though he was putting the house up for sale. On weekends he’d refine his technique, and as word spread among friends and relatives, he launched a catering business. The family moved out, but he continued to operate as the property languished on the market. It finally sold, and nine months ago he rented out a five-table storefront in Archer Heights and opened for business as a restaurant.
Zaragoza goes through five to seven young goats in a weekend, seasoning the meat with kosher salt before gently cooking it in a sealed steamer on a stovetop for up to six hours. He’s been shopping for a wood-burning oven so he can use red oak and pencas in the more traditional method. “Between the wood and the pencas,” he says, “you eat and you get the sense of a high. You sit there almost comatose.”
Unlike most birrieros, he makes his consomme, which is tomato-based, without drippings from the meat. It’s a method he learned by videotaping Segura’s wife, and it results in a clean broth without the fat and excessive saltiness that can ruin a plate of chivo. After steaming, he lightly applies an ancho-based mole to the meat and transfers it to an oven behind the counter for the tatemada. He’s hired a 32-year-old Guanajuato native named Maria Guadalupe Jungo to come in a couple times a week to make tortillas on a mesquite wood press he brought back from La Barca. When these are freshly pressed and heated on the grill until slightly puffed, they’re an exquisite vehicle for the goat, lightly drizzled with the consomme and garnished with salsa, onions, cilantro, and lime.
Like Segura, Zaragoza chops the meat to order at the counter, a visual reassurance to customers that he’s not one of those unscrupulous birrieros who mix beef into the goat. “Number one, you don’t lose eye contact with your customer,” he says. “Number two, they see what you’re doing. Number three, they’re seeing how good you are.”
Less adventurous eaters can opt for an assortment of rib and leg meat, but he’s attracted a number of customers who know the chivo as well he does. They’ll sit at the counter, order a plato bien surtido, an assortment of favorite cuts such as la pistola, perhaps some liver, or la aldilla, the “love handle,” a silky piece of flank meat attached to a lower rib. Some will special order the machito, the coiled tripe and gut, others the cabeza, or head. “That’s my dad,” says Zaragoza. “He cracks it open. He’s like, ‘Leave me alone. I don’t need salsa, nothing.'”