2018 Chicago Rising Star Chef Jonathan Zaragoza of Birrieria Zaragoza

2018 Chicago Rising Star Chef Jonathan Zaragoza of Birrieria Zaragoza
May 2018

Birrieria Zaragoza
4852 S Pulaski Road
Chicago, Illinois 60632



Birrieria Zaragoza is a Chicago institution, and Jonathan Zaragoza its guardian of tradition. The Birrieria was founded by his father, Juan Zaragoza. The elder Zaragoza worked in a corporate job and was looking for ways to reconnect with his heritage and culinary roots. He and Jonathan began taking trips to his hometown, La Barca, in Jalisco, Mexico. While there, they studied with a master goat roaster who had a 100-year-old recipe and no heirs to pass it down to.

The Zaragozas’ travel and toil resulted in a thriving backyard catering business and later the popular—for those in the know— brick and mortar outpost in the Polish-Mexican neighborhood of Archer Heights. Birrieria Zaragoza serves only birria, a spicy goat stew—served on its own or in tacos or quesadillas.

Growing up in the family business, Jonathan Zaragoza didn’t step away to squander his cooking heritage and family name. In his teens and early 20s, he worked with great Chicago chefs (and Rising Stars alums) Frank Brunacci at Sixteen and Andrew Zimmerman at Sepia. By the age of 23, he had taken the reins as executive chef at Masa Azul in Logan Square. After taking some time off to rest and travel (and to spend time with his young family), Jonathan returned home to Birrieria Zaragoza—bringing some serious finesse and sourcing to its menu—and carrying his family’s delicious torch of tradition forward.

Interview with 2018 Chicago Rising Star Chef Jonathan Zaragoza

Caroline Hatchett: What are the origins of Birrieria Zaragoza?

Jonathan Zaragoza:We only serve one dish here: birria. When I was 12, my dad was sick of his corporate job in Chicago, and he took me on a trip to see Miguel Segura in his hometown of La Barca in Jalisco, Mexico to learn to make birria. We came equipped with a camera and a notebook in case he was willing to share his recipe. Miguel is heirless, so we made an agreement: if I learned [the recipe] and made the dish well, I couldn’t open a place in Mexico. That same year, we built a wood-burning oven in our backyard [on Chicago’s South Side]. We operated a clandestine restaurant on Saturday and Sunday mornings, until, one day, we got busted by the cops. With all the cars and people coming in and out, they thought we were selling drugs. Probably because we’re Mexican! We just gave them tacos, and they kept coming back. Eventually, we sold the house and stopped cooking. In 2007, Dad showed me [our current location] and we decided to open up a birrieria. The restaurant turned 10 this past fall. We mainly serve goat on handmade tortillas, just like Miguel taught me. I work with my whole family in the restaurant. As the oldest of six, it’s hard sometimes to work with your family; I love them, but some days I have to remind myself of that more than others. 

CH: Explain birria to me.

JZ: We start with local goats that come from different states in the Midwest—Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan—depending on the time of year. We butcher them in-house, season them with Mexican sea salt, and steam them until the meat is falling off the bone. We then coat the meat in ancho chiles, spices and red mole. As it’s roasted in the oven, the mole adheres to the meat, and it develops a crispy, crackling texture. We serve the finished meat with a tomato-based broth, which sets our birria apart from the contenders’. People usually make the broth with the goat carcass, but that type of broth is too rich. I find that the tomato broth compliments the dish by cutting through the richness of the goat meat. We serve the meat bone-in, and [diners] usually ask for the shank or neck meat. We serve it with a side of roasted Roma tomato salsa made with garlic and arbol chiles. 

This recipe is 200 years old; our restaurant’s version is the result of my and my dad’s obsession with Miguel’s birria. But that obsession didn’t always lead to good things. At the end of the day, Miguel would send several of his friends out—each with a machete hanging from their belt, a cutting board, and a carton of meat—to sell the birria on the street. One day, my dad asked his mom for a peso for birria— instead of the peso, he caught an ass whooping.

CH: Who makes the goat? Is it a collaborative effort?

JZ: Our head butcher has been since here since he was 8 years old. He preps the meat for Dino and Tony, who steam and roast it. It cooks overnight, and there’s always a pot going. I make the sauces and blend the ingredients and flavors together— make sure everything is soigné. All the guys [behind the counter] have personalities and a customer base.

CH: You’ve also worked outside Birrieria Zaragoza. Where have you cooked?

JZ: I’ve done several things, including working at Michelin-starred places. I’ve been back [at Birrieria Zaragoza] for two years now after being gone for five or six. At 16, I worked at Trump Tower with Frank [Brunacci]. I started as an in-room dining cook and then worked my way to the lunch staff. I sucked. But Frank really gave me an opportunity, and I found my way around a real kitchen. I had just dropped out of culinary school when I began working at Sepia under Andrew [Zimmerman]. I staged for a month for free because I was obsessed with that place. After working with Andrew, I knew I wanted to be a chef and exactly what kind of chef I wanted to be. From there, I went to work at Masa Azul in Logan Square. I was their executive chef at age 24; it turns out that I wasn’t ready yet, but the experience taught me what it meant to be a chef and how to push myself. After that, I bounced around and helped open concept restaurants. I went to Dubai to help open Hecho en Dubai, which was a crazy time. Even though Birrieria Zaragoza is my main focus right now, I still do pop-ups twice a month and private events as they come.

CH: How are you involved in the community?

JZ: We’re located in Archer Heights; the main vein of the neighborhood is Archer Street, then Pulaski Road. This is the SW side, and it’s predominantly Mexican and Polish. There are lots of Poles dating Mexicans, a lot of cross-cultural interaction— it’s a fun neighborhood. I grew up 20 blocks south of here in a rougher area. These neighborhoods are OG; you get out by working hard, or you get in trouble with the law. That’s why I talk to kids in grammar school and do demos for them. I talk to them about my experiences as a chef so that they know there are possibilities for them in life. We also volunteer at the Chicago Food Depository. Additionally, the proceeds of the hot sauce we sell here go to disaster relief in Mexico for the recent earthquake. We have customers whose families have been affected by that, so we try to give back and help as much as we can.

We also have customers who can’t return [home]. We’ve been here for 10 years and serve as a beacon to the local Mexican community. Some Mexicans who come here can’t go back of their own accord and they miss their culture. They come in and tell us, “Thanks for making it an authentic experience.” We view ourselves as the cornerstone of the Chicago Mexican food scene. We’re always getting better and want to keep playing a major role in the community because, at one point, we were on the other side of the fence. My grandfather first came to the U.S. to work in the fields in California. What kind of thanks would it be to squander his hard work? We respect the hard work of our predecessors and do our best to cook delicious, authentic food and work as hard as my grandfather did.

CH: What’s your biggest challenge?

JZ: Finding time to spend with my daughter, Wednesday. She’s 10 months old and she’s amazing. I’m in a good spot right now even though I only sleep five hours a night. It’s partly because I’ve been working on myself. I used to have a mean streak, but it’s fading with my years. I’ve loved that transition. We try to keep it pretty cheerful around here— it makes for better food. 

CH: What’s your five-year plan?

JZ: I’m always on, always scheming, always keeping an eye out. When I left Masa, I talked to Andrew [Zimmerman], and he said, “Sometimes when you’re trying to prove yourself, you lose who you are, your identity.” It inspired me to go to Mexico and work with the women there. I wanted to go back and ask questions, learn respectfully from my origins. One of my goals this year is to start a YouTube show called “Cook like a Dona.” I’ve invested in it and bought all the gear. The premise is to bring chefs on to cook with their moms, but the moms will take the lead in the kitchen. The female side of culture is culture; women are the glue that holds it all together. I wanted to showcase that.

I would also love another restaurant to try out some of my ideas. My goals keep evolving and changing as I get inspired. As a long-term goal, I’d like to open a restaurant in another part of the country. I love San Francisco and the area to the north of the city, so that may be a future location. I also want to own and live on a farm because that’s how we grew up cooking. That’s my dream: live on a farm and own a restaurant.