January 13, 2012

Hunger Strike | A tale of two goats

People of Chicago, hear my cry. Despite the title of this article, this is not another review singing the praises of the small-plates mecca that is Girl and the Goat. But I can understand your initial confusion; between Girl and the Goat, and the “soon”-to-be opened Little Goat in the West Loop, Stephanie Izard has a virtual monopoly over any use of the word “goat” within 50 miles of Chicago. This is an unfortunate state of affairs, dictated more by trendiness than tastiness. But if you’re willing to go a little bit out of your comfort zone, both geographically and gastronomically speaking, you will be rewarded with much better food at a fraction of the price.

Just as any good hidden treasure, Birrieria Zaragoza is, for lack of a better word, hidden. Very well hidden. It’s on a random street in Archer Heights surrounded by car dealerships, and taking any form of public transportation to get there is a yet-to-be -discovered circle of hell. Not much can be said for the actual interior either; four or five tables and the world’s smallest counter, all within dimensions remarkably similar to that of an “L” train. But if you need any reason to befriend someone with a car, please let this be your motivation. If you can’t manage that, then steal one—the food here is worth going to jail for.

To say the menu is goat-centric would be an understatement. It’s all goat, all the time, baby. This ain’t no democracy; it’s the North Korea of menus. You have your choice of goat, goat, or more goat; large plate of goat, a small plate of goat (a large plate of goat immediately invalidates the existence of the small plate of goat), goat tacos, or goat quesadillas. No matter, because you really can’t goat wrong. (My dignity, my dignity, I am willing to sacrifice my food-writing dignity for a goat.) Anyway, just order a large plate of birrieria and let your journey begin. Oh, and get some goat consommé while you’re at it. While it runs counter to any consommé in the classical sense of a pure, distilled broth, this murky bowl of goat drippings is better than any Thanksgiving gravy you’ve had or will ever have in your life.

The birrieria comes with onions, dried chilies, cilantro, some limes, and, lo and behold, freshly stamped corn tortillas. And I do mean fresh, as in you can see the nice lady pressing them to order literally five feet away from you: so soft, pliable, and warm that they make all other tortillas seem like reconstituted Doritos. Meanwhile, the goat itself is a nice half-pound slab, sitting unadorned in its juices, longing to be eaten. Pull out the bone like Excalibur and feast away. Take the tortilla, add the goat, add your choice of condiments, consume, lick fingers, rinse, repeat. It’s all about the “funk,” that strange and alluring aftertaste, the reminder that you are eating a barnyard animal. You won’t find it in beef, chicken, pork, or really any other meat…you gotta go goat or go home. But it’s good. So damn good. It makes you wonder why all restaurants don’t just figure out how to do one thing, and do it incredibly.

As I finished my goat massacre, I took a moment to smell my hands. They smelled like paradise, if paradise were a mixture of corn, lime, cilantro, and goat. Which I am pretty sure it is in certain religions. In this moment of goat-induced euphoria, I found myself recalling a meal at Girl and the Goat earlier in the year. The standards were all at the table: the fancy bread with even fancier butter, the Pig Face (I hope that’s not trademarked), the goat chorizo flatbread, the assortment of absurdly savory desserts laden with pork fat and the like, etc. And they were all good, barring a few quibbles here and there. But the meal I had at Girl and the Goat was generically good. It almost felt too easy to enjoy, but just as easy to forget. Birrieria Zaragoza was memorably good, to the point where smelling your fingers hours later conjures body -trembling shudders of deliciousness, as the entire meal flashes before your mouth, and all you can think is, in the words of Liz Lemon, “I want to go to there.”

The kind of shockingly simple food that makes you disillusioned with the world of “fine” or high-end dining is really the kryptonite to places like Girl and the Goat. You come into these restaurants, order organ meats and other unconventional sources of protein, flavored with Asian spices, and pride yourself on being an adventurous and exotic eater. There are certain expectations of a tasty meal, and these expectations will in all likelihood be met. And even if they’re not, you convince yourself it was an incredible experience anyway to justify the arm and leg you left behind in lieu of the check. But walking into Birrieria Zaragoza, you honestly have no concept of the deliciousness that awaits: a meal free of pretension, and heavy on satisfaction. It’s exciting to try something truly “new” and under-hyped for a change, which is unfortunately becoming harder and harder to find in a city where it’s strange to not have crispy pig’s ears somewhere on the menu. Talk about first world problems. But there is a certain delicious irony in the fact that Birrieria Zaragoza, despite serving what is essentially the most traditional form of peasant food, manages to be far more innovative and interesting than Girl and the Goat or any of its ilk. I find it hard to actually put into words the pure, simple joy I experienced eating here. It was rivaled only by the joy of realizing I had feasted like a golden goat god for the price of Izard’s goat flatbread alone.

In those long, cold December days, as 2011 drew to a close, Birrieria Zaragoza just managed to redeem this food-filled year for me. The funk of the goat meat finally drew me out of my own jaded and overly critical dining funk. It was truly a flawless experience in every respect, all without anyone asking me whether I have dined at their restaurant before, being informed of the provenance of my food, or struggling to divide an ounce of meat between four people. A rare feat indeed. So while Birrieria Zaragoza may singularly cry out, “I am goat, hear me bleat,” it really speaks loudly and clearly for all of the incredible and—thankfully—undiscovered small restaurants in Chicago. Do yourself a favor and make it one of your 2012 resolutions to visit as many as you can. Just, for everyone’s sake, remember to keep it on the down- low.