“What’s your favorite restaurant?”
I get that question all the time, and I have no good answer. My favorites vary by season, mood, phases of the moon.
What I usually answer, though, is “Birrieria Zaragoza on Pulaski,” because that place, which specializes in just one dish, is one of the few restaurants I’ve ever visited more than once.
Now, with a location on Lake Street in Melrose Park, I’ll be going to Birrieria Zaragoza a lot more.
Birria is a stewed goat meat popular in Jalisco, Mexico. It is, indeed, one of my very favorite foods. Not fancy, very simple, and featuring a meat that is both delicious and largely ignored in the United States…but not in Mexico.
Owner John Zaragoza told me that Melrose Park was actually where they wanted to locate their first restaurant because “73% of Melrose Park is Hispanic and of those people, 90% are from Jalisco.”
In Jalisco, the goat meat is wrapped in Maguey leaves and put into an earthen pit lined with hot rocks to steam.
It’s unlikely this technique of cooking in the earth would get Board of Health approval in Melrose Park.
So, at Birrieria Zaragoza, the goat is steamed on a range. Then it’s coated in a rich mole (spicy Mexican sauce) and braised. It’s served with a tomato-based consommé.
“When I eat goat,” Zaragoza told me, “I always ask for the bones, so that I know what I’m getting is really goat meat.” It too easy to fake goat meat with beef or even pork.
When I visited Birrieria Zaragoza a few weeks ago, the chef, Alberto, honored me by serving “la pistola,” a hand-gun-shaped shank bone, shrouded in very tender meat. No doubt, this was goat, really, really delicious goat.
If you haven’t had goat before, believe me: it tastes a lot better than the photo here looks. It is, however, surprisingly fatty. As those who eat well know, fat carries a lot of flavor, and goat is hugely flavorful meat. Served with house-made tortillas and salsa of chile arbol (small red peppers), it is just beautiful, mouthful after mouthful.
Goat is all they serve at Birrieria Zaragoza: in a small or large plate, or tucked into a quesadilla. But when you have a meat this good, that’s all you really need to serve.
Birrieria Zaragoza is currently byob.
2211 W. Lake Street
Melrose Park, IL