While quesabirria mania is sweeping the country, including Chicago, Jonathan Zaragoza isn’t flinching. Earlier this month, Zaragoza took over the kitchen at the Promontory to open El Oso, a Mexican restaurant that is described as a pop-up with the chance of finding a permanent home in Hyde Park.
Zaragoza’s family runs Birria Zaragoza near Midway International Airport, one of the city’s most loved Mexican restaurants. Inside the small space, the Zaragozas serve stewed goat with handmade tortillas and a full set of accoutrements. The recent hype surrounding birria — stuffed in cheesy tacos or served with ramen noodles — doesn’t excite Zaragoza. He’s not being a joy kill, he’s just seen it all before: “It’s like everything else in food and fads,” Zaragoza says. “What’s old is new and what’s new is old.”
El Oso’s menu will include a roasted goat shank paired with a black mole that takes five days to make. The goat is marinated in that mole, steamed, and then roasted. Owner Bruce Finkelman has given Zaragoza full reign. Finkelman, the owner of music venues including Empty Bottle and Thalia Hall, is approaching hospitality in a similar manner to a record label. Earlier this year, Finkelman signed Noah Sandoval, the chef behind Oriole (a two-Michelin-starred restaurant) to create the recipes for Pizza Friendly Pizza, a pizzeria that neighbors the Bottle in Ukrainian Village.
Now he’s brought in Zaragoza: “This is really an extension of what we tried to do with Revival,” Finkelman says, referring to the food hall his restaurant company, 16” on Center, runs in the Loop. “Chicago is home to some of the great culinary minds in the word. We have the great opportunity to be creative, to come up with cool stuff, to add to that mystique in our own way.”
Cooking over a wood-burning fire is an important aspect for Mexican cooking for Zaragoza. He’s using those flames to roast items like pumpkin seeds for a Mayan dip called sikil pak. El Oso will integrate Midwest seasonality in the menu. Those pumpkin seeds will also go into a green mole.
Zaragoza echoes a familiar first-generation story of wanting to keep histories alive as a cultural ambassador. Finkelman says he enjoys hearing about the stories behind dishes and seeing how Zaragoza employs culinary tricks he learned from his family. He mentions the tostadas which absorb a smoky flavor as Zaragoza keeps them in a basket near the grill. Zaragoza’s mother, Norma, taught him: “It produces a deeper, more complex flavor,” Finkelman says.
As the pandemic continues, Zaragoza says the restaurant will fill a niche. Travel is one of his passions, and COVID-19 has ruined that pastime. He also recognizes his customers suffer from COVID-19 fatigue. If they are going leave their homes to dine at El Oso, he wants to make it worth their time.
El Oso is a residency without a set end date. The restaurant is open for dine in and takeout.
El Oso, inside the Promontory, 5311 S. Lake Park Avenue, open 4:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; 4:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday; 2:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Sunday. Order pickup online.