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Dishin’ on the Dish — Birria tacos from Birrieria Ocotlan

The restaurant’s name is a nod to its signature dish, birria, and the elder Reyes’ hometown of Ocotlan, Mexico.

One of Birrieria Ocotlan’s most popular versions of birria is the birria quesotaco, which is only served on Thursdays.
One of Birrieria Ocotlan’s most popular versions of birria is the birria quesotaco, which is only served on Thursdays.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

What’s cookin’ in and around Chicago? Here’s a closer look at one of the area’s delicious dishes you don’t want to miss.

Ramon Reyes dreamt of opening up a restaurant in Chicago ever since his uncle sent a postcard from the city when he was young.

In 1973, Reyes got his big break after buying a breakfast diner in South Chicago for $5,000. At the time, Reyes’ wife questioned what he planned to do with the newly purchased eatery. He told her he planned to make birria, a traditional Mexican dish normally made with goat meat that can be served as a stew or taco filling, and she just about lost it.

“My mom’s like, ‘Oh s- - - ... we’re f- - -ed,’ ” their son Andres Reyes recalled with a laugh. “Well, I guess my mom was wrong, and my dad was right.”

Fast forward nearly 50 years and the Reyes’ family-owned and operated restaurant, Birrieria Ocotlan, is thriving — so much so they opened a second location in 1992 on the Far South Side near the Illinois-Indiana border.

Birrieria Ocotlan manager Andres Reyes poses for a portrait at Birrieria Ocotlan at 4007 E 106th St in East Side, Thursday, March 18, 2021. | Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times
Birrieria Ocotlan manager Andres Reyes at his family’s restaurant, Birrieria Ocotlan, at 4007 E. 106th St.
Anthony Vázquez/Sun-Times

The restaurant’s name is a nod to its signature dish, birria, and the elder Reyes’ hometown of Ocotlan, Mexico.

Birria tacos, originates from central Mexico, has had a recent boom in popularity in part due to a 2019 Super Bowl ad by a California taco truck and social media, Andres Reyes said. You can dunk the tacos in the consommé made with some of the meat’s juices.

Reyes believes Birrieria Ocotlan’s birria tacos reign supreme amongst their competitors.

“I don’t mean to toot my own horn, but we have the best birria,” said Reyes, who said one of Birrieria Ocotlan’s most popular versions is the birria quesotaco, which is only served on Thursdays. “It’s been a testament of time.”

Their secret? A century-old family recipe that has been passed down for generations, beginning with the younger Reyes’ great grandfather.

It starts off with more than 30 spices, though Reyes wouldn’t give the exact number. “We use a lot of spices,” he said.

“What separates ours from the rest is that we cook literally everything separate and in bulk,” Reyes said. “It’s like assembly line. There’s process one, two, three and four.”

The meat — they serve both goat and beef tacos — cooks in the broth for about five hours. When it’s finished cooking, they skim the broth, add in tomato base and bring the consommé to a boil before adding their mix of “secret spices.” Reyes also adds extra seasoning to the meat on the side after it’s done cooking.

“It’s that simple, but I see a lot of people really mess up birria,” Reyes said. “If you cook it all together, you’re essentially taking flavor away from the dish.”

On the first bite, your palate is met with a blend of spices. The cilantro and lime is also a nice touch.

“What hits you best is the taste of cumin, garlic, chocolate, and love,” Reyes said. “I believe that chocolate is the essence of life, who doesn’t like chocolate?”

Birrieria Ocotlan, 4007 E. 106th St. The birria taco is $2.50; quesatacos $3. Visit birrieriaocotlan.com.

Got a favorite dish from a Chicago-area restaurant? Let us know via email at: dishinonthedish@suntimes.com.

Birria quesotacos are cooked at Birrieria Ocotlan.
Birria quesotacos are cooked at Birrieria Ocotlan.
Anthony Vázquez/Sun-Times