When Andy Reyes rhapsodizes about the perfect bowl of birria, he has generations of his forebears speaking through him.
“I have to have a piece of costilla, the rib with a little bit of fat and a little bit of meat towards the end, drenched a little bit in consommé, with onion and cilantro,” Reyes said. “You get a warm tortilla first, you put the lime, you put the meat, put some salsa and then you take a bite out of it. That is, for me, birria. Birria is not only something we do for a living, it’s actually embedded in our DNA, I like to believe.”
Though Reyes is only the second generation of Reyeses to run Birrieria Ocotlan, the family’s birria recipe goes back to 1926, when his great-grandfather developed his own version of the stewed goat dish in Ocotlan, Jalisco. When Andy’s father, Ramon Reyes, immigrated to the Chicago area, he brought the Reyes birria know-how with him.
“His uncle was here in Chicago,” Andy Reyes said. “And at 18, my dad received this postcard, and it was one of those old-school postcards where it said Chicago and it had the skyline, right? He pulls out the postcard and points out to his friends and says, ‘Hey guys. Look, it’s my uncle. He lives in Chicago now, and one day I’m going to sell birria right here.’”
In 1973, Ramon Reyes made good on that prediction. He took over a small diner at 87th Street and Commercial Avenue and began selling the family specialty. A second location on 106th Street was added in 1992. Over the years, all four of Ramon and Linda Reyes’ children worked at the family restaurants.
“I remember making my debut officially when I was 8 years old,” Andy Reyes said. “He’d sit me down in the corner, you know, a chubby little kid eating my taco. I started working here in high school. I remember I used to play football; I would have practice on Saturdays. After practice, all my friends would go hang out. I’d come here.”
When Ramon Reyes stepped away from the business for health reasons five years ago, Andy Reyes, the youngest child, stepped in.
“I wasn’t ready, but luckily I have my sisters,” Andy Reyes said. “That’s the beautiful thing about having a family business: You won’t be alone.”
Since then, Andy Reyes has helped steer the restaurant through COVID-19 by bringing some modern marketing to his traditional dish via TikTok and updating the menu to include trendy quesabirria tacos. He said he feels a responsibility to his family and the community that’s sustained them to keep Birrieria Ocotlan thriving.
“I think the love and the heart that my father put initially into this business, the relationships he’s able to build with the community, and I think the recipe itself, speak volumes,” Andy Reyes said. “We’ve been doing this for, man, close to 100 years now in my family. I’ve seen four or five generations coming through the door, and that’s very special. Food is supposed to bring us together, … and birria is for everybody.”