“It’s the family recipe since time began. If I messed with it I would probably be shunned,” Jonathan Zaragoza explains about his birria, which is to say, the now-legendary braised goat served at his family’s southside restaurant. But Jonathan, 23, is now on the north side, executive chef at a snazzy tequila-focused bar and restaurant called Masa Azul, where his approach to upgrading the food offerings is one step forward, one step back— forward to the techniques he’s learned at places like Sepia, backwards to the traditional peasant food that, as far as he’s concerned, makes Mexican food every bit as rich a culinary heritage to carry on as French or Italian. Jonathan’s new menu, including the birria, debuted this week. We spoke with him and Masa Azul owner Jason Lerner as Jonathan prepared several of his dishes— though not the birria; it had hours to go yet— for us to photograph. Read the interview and see our slideshow and the new menu below.
So the birria is just debuting this week. That’s surprising, why didn’t you do it before?
Zaragoza: I just wanted to make sure the rest of the menu was up to speed before I brought it in. It takes a lot of time.
Is it any different from how they make it on South Pulaski—
No, man, no different. Exactly the same. If it isn’t broken…
We should ask you, Jason, as the owner— how did you and Jonathan meet up?
Zaragoza: Well, he was my parole officer.
We know you’re joking. Really, how.
Lerner: We’re a bar devoted to Mexican spirits. Our list is almost exclusively small producers, it’s very important for us to know something about the producer of every bottle on our list. And we have a great beverage director, Jenny Kessler, who mixes terrific drinks based on tequila and mezcal— this is not a get-hammered-on-margaritas place.
And after we’d been open a year, we just said we have to get our food up to the level of our bar program. The food needs to be as serious as we take the drinks, of that level of quality. So I started looking around, and one guy I talked to was Abe Conlon, who’s about to open down the street, what’s his place called now—
Fat Rice. And I said to him at some point, do you know anybody. And he said he might, so he sent Jenny and me to talk to Jonathan. And five minutes into it, she’s scribbling me a note saying, cancel the other interviews. I think we both knew Jonathan was the guy.
Jonathan, you were working at Sepia then, were you looking for a permanent head chef job at that point?
Zaragoza: Hey, I had one, I was running the family business. So I wasn’t necessarily looking.
I liked the idea of bringing the food closer to street food, real Mexican food. You know, people don’t like big plates as much any more. Especially if you’re here for cocktails, you can get tired of eating the same thing for so long. And a lot of it doesn’t have much to do with how people eat in Mexico, you know? I mean, we do a steak with Heston Blumenthal’s potatoes, basically, and if you want that, it’s good, but I’m trying to bring people more of the flavors of Mexico.
Which are what?
Like the birria. Or the cochinita pibil. A lot of braised meats. I love braising, man. That is a true labor of love, you know? Like our pork belly tacos. We put the belly down on a bed of garlic and orange and ancho chiles, we put in enough chicken stock to partway cover it, and we braise it for hours. Then we press it for a day and slice it, and then we grill it. We take our time like that on a lot of stuff. That’s why we make all our tortillas fresh when the order comes in, too. There’s nothing like a fresh tortilla, we don’t premake and bag them.
Another big part of Mexican food that you don’t get all the time here is— the pickled stuff. We have two different kinds of pickled onions, for different dishes. There’s the red vinegar pickled ones on the cochinita pibil, and then some that we just do in lime and salt, they’re in the butternut squash soup, actually. Those are the family recipes, too— it’s my grandmama’s red onions. She’d make a big batch of those to go with dinner and my dad would put like half of them on his plate and just eat them.
But you need that brightness, something tart to cut through the braised meat. That’s the part that’s often missing in Mexican food in Chicago. But it’s like any restaurant that uses acid to sharpen a dish. Mexicans don’t get credit for knowing the same things that French food knows, 400 years ago, but we did.
That’s an interesting point about the power of that touch of acid to heighten flavor, which is obviously a big part of fine dining here. You worked at Sepia and some other places, what did you learn there?
You know, more than anything I learned organization. Organizational skills, the more cerebral side of cooking. That’s what I got from Andrew Zimmerman, who is a great teaching chef with a huge brain. He’s a great guy at guiding you and sharing stuff. Which is why, when he lets you know you’re a dumbshit, you go, man, I really screwed up (laughs).
And I learned some new ingredients. I mean, Mexicans don’t really eat frisee, but I learned to like that bitterness and I think with the jalapeño vinaigrette, it goes really well with the scotch egg. Which is also something they don’t have in Mexico. But I thought it would be fun to do with chorizo. It’s something that gets cooked three times— first we soft boil it, then we coat it with chorizo and fry it, then at the end, it goes in the oven.
It’s fun to do new things like that, but first, I want to do the food I grew up with. That’s not always the best thing, depending on how well your mom cooked, but I think this food, tacos and small plates and so on, will go really well with drinking our cocktails. It’s good.