Jonathan Zaragoza

Chef

If Jonathan Zaragoza knows how to do one thing, it’s cook. The Chicago-based executive chef of his family’s Birrieria Zargoza has been on a meteoric rise since he could hold a spatula or roast his own goat—which weren’t that far apart. At 22, he was listed on Zagat’s “30 Under 30,” at 23 he was executive chef at prestigious Logan Square restaurant Masa Azul. Then he rejoined the family business before being named one of StarChefs 2018 Rising Stars. He’s a tour de force who’s made a name for himself perfecting an almost-lost artform.

For Jonathan, food is a fine blend of family and heritage. At 7, he was insisting on making his own scrambled eggs. By 12, he was cooking Birria Tatemada (oven-roasted goat) with his dad at their restaurant. The Zargoza men studied under a master Birrierio (goat roaster) with a 200-year-old recipe and no heirs—and so they took the mantle. Food, explains Jonathan, serves as a physical link between generations. He’s keeping that link strong with every dish he creates.

Why We Love Jonathan Zaragoza

Master goat roaster. Ancient recipe. A coveted promise. An alien invasion. Okay, we made that last part up. Nevertheless, Jonathan’s origin story is one a superhero would love. He’s used his culinary powers to share incredible flavor and age-old tradition.

“When we learned how to make birria with Miguel Segura in Jalisco, we promised him we’d only serve one dish and make it exactly like he makes it.”

“I think we’re bringing a sense of home in a time where people are craving that.”

6 Questions with Jonathan Zaragoza

  1. Inheriting a 200-year-old birria recipe seems like an origin story. Do you think this was fate?

    Yeah, that we inherited these goat-roasting abilities?! And with an Instagram handle like Goat Boy, it kind of begs for that. I think it was a time and place thing, like a lot of things in life are—like a Modern Adventure. The master goat roaster didn’t have any sons to pass the recipe on to, as tradition goes. But we happened to be the heirs to it based on our relationship with Miguel and his family. My dad wanted to learn so he could make it for us out here. But it wasn’t until 2007 we opened up our brick and mortar place.

  2. What were you doing before the brick and mortar restaurant?

    We started in our backyard. We had a wood-burning oven. It was my job on Friday nights at six o’clock to start the fire so the bricks would get hot enough. Then at midnight, I’d throw the goat in there, put the agave leaves on top of it, and cook it. Then I’d be up at six a.m. taking it out with my dad.

  3. How many people were coming to your backyard for this?

    We had like an underground restaurant in our basement. It started off with like one or two people going, ‘You know, so-and-so told us about this,’ and we were doing that for about a year. And then we thought we had a cease-and-desist from the cops because they came knocking and thought we were pushing drugs out of our house. It was on the South Side, so the assumption was valid. But, we gave them tacos and they loved it, and we kind of got grandfathered into the illegal restaurant game in Chicago.

  4. What do you like about the Chicago food scene other than illegal goat roasting?

    It’s so diverse. Chicago’s still a very blue collar city in terms of the food scene. Places like the West Loop or River North get a lot of attention, but people who know Chicago and are from here know what the neighborhood food scenes are about. People vote with their money. If a place isn’t putting out the greatest food, people are going to vote on that, and that place won’t be around for long. But there are so many places that have been around for 25, 50 years, and it’s the same vibe, they haven’t changed, and I love that.

  5. How do you think Mexican food is differentiated in Chicago?

    In Chicago, there are a lot of people from a couple states. Number one is Jalisco, where I’m from. Right behind that is Michoacan. And then Aguas Calientes. In these states, there’s regional food difference. Like Michoacan is famous for carnitas, whereas Jalisco is where birria’s from. It’s kind of like a terroir thing. But all these cultures are super strong. Jalisco’s state saying is “Jalisco es México.” Any food that is perceived as being “Mexican” in the States is probably from there. It’s so regional, and I think the Chicago food scene is very reflective of Mexican food culture in that sense.

  6. What is Birrieria Zargoza bringing to Chicago that nobody else is?

    I think our family restaurant is bringing a sense of home in a time where people are craving home. Based on the political situation, or their ease of getting out there or not getting out there. We offer a safe haven for people who can’t travel there right now. We have this super, super Mexican experience in the delivery of the traditions we’re upholding to people who are Mexican and American. We’re both super Mexican and super Chicagoan at the same time. The Chicago food scene is super niche, from the places you go for Italian beef or hot dogs, you know? If you think about it, we’re the quintessential Chicago restaurant while offering quintessential Mexican food. Which, in a way, is Chicago.

Mexico City with Jonathan Zaragoza

One Departure Only | May 15 - 19, 2020

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