BRUNCH ON THE NORTH SIDE IS RULED BY warmed-over hollandaise and $12 eggs; on the south side, post-church brunch carries on at Daley’s, Pearl’s Place, and Ms. Biscuit, among others. But out on the Southwest side, Saturday and Sunday mornings mean a turn to the pre-Hispanic cooking of Mexico and hearty, spicy pit-roasted meats—from barbacoa from the north of Mexico to cochinita pibil from the Yucatan Peninsula.

But my pit-roasted meat of choice when facing a Saturday morning hangover is birria. Nowadays, alas, most restaurants don’t dig whole pits in the backyard, and I doubt that would pass muster with city code. Most birrierias make do with improvised pots and ovens, here as in Mexico. The origins of the dish lie within the birria belt of central Mexico, the states of Jalisco (the spirtual home of birria, if there is one), Michoacán, and Aguascalientes. Chicagoans are lucky in that we can sample a half dozen or so different varieties in the span of a few hours.

Though birria is usually thought of as goat dish, the term birria itself only refers to the mode of preparation. In Guadalajara, it’s birria de chivo (goat), which makes sense, given the local football club’s nickname (Chivas). The utility of birria as a solution for when you’re hungover, additionally, makes sense given the excellence of Jalisciense tequila. Highland areas within the belt also serve birria de borrego, or lamb, and in the north, birria de res (beef) predominates as the dish migrated up into the hands of cattle ranchers. Either way, the process involves an adobo rub with chiles and spices, along with maybe tomatoes and onions, served with or without consome (the Mexican adaptation of French consommé, a thick clear meat stock). The meat can be roasted, steamed, or both, it can be served many ways, but almost always with chile de arbol, cilantro and onions.

Graziano prosciutto

 

Here are some standout places that showcase the variety of birria on Chicago’s southwest side:


Birrieria Zaragoza


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Where: 4852 S Pulaski Rd. (Archer Heights)

Any discussion of birria in Chicago in the last 5 years has probably begun and ended with Birrieria Zaragoza, the Archer Heights G.O.A.T of goat restaurants in this city. But, as good as the birria tatameda (oven-roasted goat) at Zaragoza is, Chicago winter calls for a slight modification—the birria en consome. Served in a bowl, destined to be punched up with a little chile de arbol, cilantro and onions, the birria en consome is probably the best way to consume the tomato laced roasted goat.

Prodigal son Jonathan Zaragoza is now running Miel (a pop up dinner series at Zaragoza) and is one of the two best Alta Cocina chefs in Chicago (the other being deposed Cantina 1910 head honcho Diana Davila), but either way, the handmade tortillas and goat at this family-run restaurant remains a perfect La Barca-style birria.


Birrieria y Taqueria el Cabrito


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Where: 1659 W. 47th St. (Back of the Yards)

If there is a contender to the birria de chivo throne in Chicago, it remains this Back of the Yards birrieria—the best time to arrive is a Saturday or Sunday morning, when the steam table is covered with a tarp hiding within it an entire goat, along with a side of their excellent pancita (stuffed tripe). At this “Little Goat,” the taquero (taco chef) hails from Teloloapan, Guerrero—a city bordering Jalisco, and they will serve the birria en consome with garbanzo beans on request, while the bay leaf-enhanced stew, lacking the tomato and garlic character of Zaragoza’s, is more goat-like, more intense.

The handmade tortillas come from freshly nixtamalized masa purchased from the nearby Tortilleria Atotonilco. A few halting words of Spanish bring out a jet black salsa diablo and some chile de arbol, all the better to contemplate your chipotle-covered goat. Make sure not to miss out on the pancita, which is the taquero’s special recipe—goat stomach stuffed with serrano chiles and a masa paste. At some point a few years back, Back of the Yards had no fewer than four birria specialists, and only Cabrito survives, for good reason: if Zaragoza is Goat 101, with consistency and ease of access, El Cabrito represents a high level seminar on birria—indescribable to those who don’t already know birria well enough to know how to pick their favorite part of the animal for the plate. (The answer to that question, by the way, is the costillas, or ribs.)

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Birrieria de Reyes de Ocotlan


Where: 1322 W. 18th St. (Pilsen); 4001 E. 106th St. (East Side)

If there were such a thing as “Chicago-style” birria, it would be found at this chainlet founded in 1972 by Ramon Reyes and making an attempt at Jaliscan birria. The goat lacks the spicy character of a true birria, and the consome takes on the consistency of a pot roast, rather than a true consome. However, I still find myself stumbling the few blocks over from my apartment to the Pilsen branch of this institution in order to grab a small bowl while families around me bring in stockpots to fill up for home. (Protip, Sunday morning party planners: Many of these locations sell Birria by the gallon—BYO pot.)

At this point, Ocotlan is a holdover from the era of Mexican migration in the 70’s, and an entire generation of Chicagoans have grown up eating the fatty hunks of goat, vinegary tomato salsa and a package of El Milagro tortillas. Life doesn’t suck, even in winter.


Taquizas Don Rafa


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Where: 2023 S. Western Ave. (Pilsen)

For those who don’t care for goat, we’ve finally moved away from that. Given the number of norteños who call Chicago home, somebody catering to the popularity of birria de res was bound to appear. A whole hunk of beef shoulder is shredded while the homemade white corn tortillas are dipped in consome before being turned into one of the finer tacos in the land.

The hole in the wall located under the Western Pink Line stop just opened, and if you’re looking for a home cooked, guisado (stew) style birria, here’s the place. A few tacos and the excellent serrano-laced salsa verde and I’m content.


Taqueria los Paisanos


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Where: 573 Collins St., Joliet

I don’t intend on getting locked up in Joliet prison anytime soon, but if I was, my first stop out of prison would be Taqueria los Paisanos, located in Joliet’s Eastside. Specializing in Jerez-style birria, Jerez is located in the heart of cattle country, so fittingly, this small kitchen specializes in birria de res. (For the reference, a Paisa is somebody who acts and dresses like a cowboy.) Beef is first seared, then stewed and tossed with guajillo chile sauce.

The plate of shredded beef is, on some level, like a hybrid of Texas-style brisket and chili, or at least, that’s what my dining colleague remarked. Paisanos is a 14 seat hole in the wall in a strip mall bordering on a prison, but the video promotion is straight out of cowboy country. Either way, the homemade tortillas—a blend of corn and flour— the spicy, comforting plate of birria, and excellent service make a (non-court-mandated) trip out to Joliet worth it.


Taqueria y Birrieria Morelia


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Where: 5620 S. Pulaski (West Elsdon)

Mike Sula reviewed this birrieria near Midway a few years back but unfortunately, missed the point, for me at least. The point is large hunks of stewed lamb rib, a feature, if you ask for them, of the birria de borrego. Then the clean, salty, and delicious lamb consome laced with chile oil manages to conjure the spirits of the best version of kimchi jjigae you’ve ever had. Although the flour-corn hybrid tortillas from the Sula review have passed on with the passing of the tortilla lady torch, they are still excellent, homemade tortillas.

Topped with some some crazy excellent sesame seed-laced salsa diablo, Morelia brings the heat when it comes to birria, and that’s before you order any of the excellent montalayo (stuffed intestine), which was Sula’s choice. Wash down the meal with a beer at Triple J next door, a classic Southwest side Polish liquor store and bar.


Hunter Owens is still looking for the goat of his dreams.

COVER IMAGE: Birrieria y Taqueria el Cabrito


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