First in a series devoted to Chicago restaurants offering regional dishes
West of Mexico City on the Pacific coast, Jalisco is sometimes called the most Mexican state in Mexico. It ranges from coastal Puerto Vallarta to Guadalajara, nestled in the mountains, to Ocotlan, which sits on the shore of Chapala, Mexico's largest lake. Jalisciense specialties vary as widely as the terrain.
Goats, one of the more benign gifts of the conquistadores, thrive even in the rugged terrain of the Sierra Madre. Traditionally the meat for birria, seasoned goat, is smeared with chile paste and cooked over water. Sometimes the goat is wrapped in agave leaves, the source of Jalisco's signature beverage, tequila; the leaves hold in the moisture and impart a subtle tang to the meat.
At Birrieria Reyes de Ocotlan (1322 W. 18th, 312-733-2613) in Pilsen, the Reyes family has offered birria and little else for about 25 years, serving it in soup and tacos. For the soup the cooked goat is added to a rich tomato broth seasoned with chiles and cloves and served with chopped onion and fresh cilantro; the dish isn't highly spiced, but on each table are bowls of toasted chile arbol, common in Jalisco. Birria is typically prepared by cooking the meat over, not in, water, but to ensure that their birria stays moist, the Garcia family of Jalisco Restaurant (4224 W. 31st, 773-254-4149) in Little Village boils it, a technique that makes it lose some flavor. The goat is served here with sauce, not broth; you spoon hunks onto a tortilla and add onion, cilantro, and parsley. Jalisco Restaurant also offers barbacoa, beef prepared in the same manner as birria, with spices including guajillo chiles and cinnamon. If you've shied away from tongue, take the plunge with a flavorful gordita de lengua. Even if you freak halfway through, you're out less than two bucks.
POSOLE and CARNE EN SU JUGO
In Jalisco, as in most of Mexico, animals are used from head to tail. Posole, a soup of white hominy, is traditionally prepared with a pig's head, neck, or feet as its meat source. At Restaurant y Pozoleria San Juan (1523 N. Pulaski, 773-276-5825), one of the few remaining posole places in Chicago, the soup ($7.50 a bowl) is available in the three colors of the Mexican flag: red, seasoned with guajillo chiles and typical of Jalisco, and the green and white varieties more typical of the neighboring state of Guerrero. (If you want pig foot in your bowl you have to ask for it specifically.) Pedro Aguilar, the owner and sometime cook, serves the hearty dish with baskets of crispy chicharrones (fried bits of pigskin).
At El Taco Veloz (1745 W. Chicago, 312-738-0363) posole and menudo are served only on Sunday, but carne en su jugo, another Jalisco favorite, is available throughout the week. Literally "meat in its juice," this simple dish--chopped beef and bacon in a thin broth filled with beans, avocado, onion, and radishes--is deeply satisfying. The ubiquitous Jalisciense chile arbol is served on the side.
The torta, or Mexican sandwich, was born in the 19th century with the arrival of French invaders, whose expulsion is celebrated on Cinco de Mayo.
As with goat from the Spanish, here French white-flour bread was transformed by Mexican cooks into something distinctly their own. Literally "drowned sandwiches," tortas ahogadas are made with torpedo-shaped bread rolls called bolillos that are filled with pickled onions and meat--frequently carnitas, crispy pork chunks--then drenched in piquant red sauce. They're especially popular in Guadalajara.
A traditional torta ahogada is served at Las Picosas (6446 S. Pulaski, 773-735-1954), but I found it sour and the bread stale. I preferred a less traditional version served at Taqueria Traspasada #2 (811 N. Ashland, 312-850-2069): it wasn't drowning in salsa and contained a somewhat unorthodox lettuce leaf and slices of avocado. The best torta ahogada I found was at Green House Steaks at the Maxwell Street Market (Green House has a permanent location at 2700 S. Millard, 773-277-6684). The soft, fresh bolillo is cooked in a mild enchilada-type salsa, stuffed with your choice of fillings--I went with chorizo and potatoes--and accompanied by a mound of lettuce, green onions, and papalo (a seasonal leaf used on Mexican sandwiches) along with a dollop of sour cream and grated cheese. Less traditional once again, but scrumptious.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Elizabeth M. Tamny.