Mid-March cold fronts are a serious downer. But take heart: Spring's not far off, and until it shows, you can always warm your wind-battered soul with a bowl of steaming birria.
For the uninitiated, birria belongs, like pho, goulash or ramen, among the world's brothy wonders—dishes which, in their ability to cut through a chill or ease a hangover, seem at once meal and medicine. Associated primarily with the Mexican state of Jalisco, birria traditionally consists of goat (chivo) that's been slowly stewed or steamed, chopped and deposited in a bowl of consommé seasoned with drippings, chiles, tomatoes and spices. A basic selection of fixings—generally diced onions, cilantro and limes—is provided for DIY flavor tweaks, along with a stack of warm tortillas just waiting to be wrapped around hunks of chivo and dunked in consommé. Here are seven of the best birria specialists, or birrierias, in the city.
This Logan Square birrieria is as bare-bones as they come, comprising a handful of booths and walls that are unembellished save for a banner depicting the Mexican city of Ocotlán. All the better to focus on the birria, we say—and it's a tasty one, with goat that's finely chopped and fairly lean. It's the broth that makes this birria unique, though; far thicker than most, with a rich brown hue and a mild, oniony flavor, it's more akin to a stew than a soup—making it an ideal choice for a chilly day. $8.
From the open kitchen at the front of the buzzing, unfussy dining room—open round the clock on weekends and till 3am on weeknights—Huentitan's cooks put out a birria that, if not brain-bending, is solid across the board. The consommé, colored a deep red, packs pleasant hits of salt and onion, while the chopped meat retains just enough fat to render it faintly gamey. A welcome touch is the cup of salsa roja served alongside the other fixings, which, spooned over some goat on a tortilla, imparts a nice smolder. $6.05.
With seating for roughly 100 diners, Little Village's Birrieria Patiños Ocotlan may be the largest spot on our list, but its menu is diminutive: Customers can choose from birria with the customary sides, three types of taco-chopped goat, lengua (tongue) and cabeza (head), or plain consommé. If you opt for the birria, you'll receive a generous helping of tender meat mingled with a hint of offal and suspended in an opaque broth strongly seasoned with cloves. At first taste, the cloves threaten to steamroll the consommé's flavor, but a hearty squeeze of lemon (provided here instead of the usual lime wedges) does wonders to brighten and bring out subtleties. $7.90.
Whether Birrieria Reyes de Ocotlan in fact furnishes, as its staff's T-shirts boldly claim, "la mejor birria del mundo" ("the best birria in the world") is beyond our purview. What we can say for sure is that this Pilsen spot is paradise for chivo's hardcore devotees; the meat here is served on the bone (we even received a substantial segment of spinal column), from which it falls with just a gentle prompting from a spoon. And if the birria doesn't sate you, sample the goat liver tacos while the charming goat tchotchkes adorning the dining room look on. $6.75.
This cozy Archer Heights birrieria has earned a cult following for its birria tatemada, which features goat that has been steamed, rubbed with an earthy mole and finally roasted. It's an utterly different approach from the stewing method used by nearly all of its Chicago competitors, and the result is something truly special. Zaragoza plates up its meat with just a splash of consommé (which is vegetarian, another deviation from the norm); each juicy forkful is enhanced by just a trace of burnt-end–like crust imparted by the roasted mole. And, oh, the tortillas; they're handmade and hearty and they almost—almost—outshine the goat. $9.50.
A visit to Birrieria Morelia on a recent, particularly frigid day was something like a session before one of those therapeutic sun lamps: The walls are painted an electric green, cheerful Spanish-language pop played and children drew pictures in the condensation that clung to the front window. The good vibrations here extend to the birria, the broth of which possesses a vivid redness, an un-shy punch of garlic and salt, and an unctuousness that translates to a stick-to-your-ribs/stick-it-to-winter quality. Like Zaragoza, the tortillas here are housemade, and if they aren't quite as memorable as the former's, they are undeniably fresh (and replenished with a smile when supplies run low). $9.
Along with satisfying, rustic handmade tortillas (a shared trait, it would seem, of Southwest Side birrierias) and a charmingly kitschy interior featuring mounted goats' horns and booths in Technicolor vinyl, this West Lawn spot offers two birria options: Diners can order the dish in its usual form, or opt for birria sec (dry), which is served, as its names suggests, without consommé. (A side of adobado refried beans is provided in the broth's stead.) For tentative eaters exploring birria for the first time, the sec may be a good starter dish here, as the consommé has a somewhat aggressive gaminess. $7.50.