Aug 20, 2023
The Best Chilaquiles You’ve Ever Had
Advertisement Supported by Eat The perfect breakfast of fried corn tortillas in salsa is always the one you just ate. This recipe is no exception. By Bryan Washington It’s tough to paint a picture of
The perfect breakfast of fried corn tortillas in salsa is always the one you just ate. This recipe is no exception.
By Bryan Washington
It’s tough to paint a picture of my first chilaquiles plate, but I’ll try: simmering green salsa on a pastel dish, covering crispy tortilla chips cracking like eggshells against a fork — and also a runny egg, with handfuls of herbs and entirely too much queso fresco.
Or it could have been salsa roja, shining red atop pastel ceramics. Or maybe a bowl brimming with scrambled eggs and cotija cheese. Or even a batch stirred softly in salsa taquera, whose chiles were too hot on their own but later mellowed after a day on the stove.
All over Mexico and in many parts of the United States, chilaquiles are both a delight and a matter of course; fried corn tortillas covered in salsa, generally served for breakfast or brunch, they’re a reliable option for both optimal flavor and working through pantry odds and ends. The most basic form of the dish very likely goes back to the Aztecs (even its name, chee-luh-KEY-lays, originates from the Nahuatl language), and over hundreds of years, variations embedded themselves throughout Mexican culture.
By some accounts, the Mexican American chef Encarnación Pinedo codified the most prevalent iteration of the dish in 1898, by way of her text “El Cocinera Español,” the first cookbook published by a Latinx author in this country. The dish exists within the larger continuum of Mexican meals maximizing tortillas and salsa. As Ford Fry notes in “Tex Mex,” “Chilaquiles are more about the tomato salsa and chile paste that are paired with a crunchy tortilla and topped with a fried egg (or sometimes boiled meats).”
Just as essential to the dish’s DNA is our ability to shift the recipe altogether. You could opt for a spicier bed of salsa for your chips. You could layer your chilaquiles with a litany of bacon, chorizo, chicken, shrimp or whichever combination will get you closer to God. An ex of mine insisted on tossing his chips in salt, immediately after frying them, claiming it’s how his aunt would stack her chilaquiles. Years later, in Tokyo, I sat on a bar stool alongside punch-drunk onlookers as a local lady cooking behind the counter did the exact same thing.
If variety makes life worth living, it’s hard to think of a better mascot than chilaquiles. One morning earlier this year, at the Hidden Cafe in Berkeley, Calif., I ate a plate of chilaquiles dedicated to the chef’s father, and the salsa verde nearly knocked me out of my Vans. It reminded me of an entirely delicious plate I shared with my boyfriend the month before, at Nana’s in Houston, where we both fanned our mouths, convinced they were the best we’d ever eaten. But that is the same sentiment we shared earlier that year after eating chilaquiles just a short drive away, at Tacos Doña Lena, a queer-owned Mexican restaurant tucked in a strip mall.
But dishes travel, right alongside thoughts and memories. The dishes we crave can contain the feelings we’d like to share. Because it’s a lot of work, cooking chilaquiles: from prepping the salsa to frying the tortillas, eyeing them until they’ve reached a consistency that feels less “precise” than correct. Like so much of cooking’s calculus, chilaquiles are as much about feel as about measurements and instructions. But little things can be done to push us closer to our ideal: choosing the best tortillas you can find. Taking care with the ingredients of your salsa. Tasting the chilaquiles throughout — inching you closer, every time, to the warmth that a meal can hold.
But maybe the ideal keeps shifting for each of us. If we’re lucky, then it’s a delicious problem to have. The last chilaquiles I ate, in Los Angeles a few weeks back, were a riff on what I’d thought was the plate of my dreams: after a weekend spent bouncing around the city’s queer spaces with friends, the following Monday found me bleary-eyed and full of dread, sweating in shades beside Big Art’s Tacos y Burros. The evening before, I nearly sprained an ankle dancing at the nightclub Eagle LA; the morning after, I feared for the climate. I stood in line with a bunch of other folks in shades, all of us seemingly in various states of malaise, as a group of guys under a tent on the roadside prepared burrito after burrito, and many of them with chilaquiles.
It took only one bite to turn my morning around. No matter where I’ve eaten them, chilaquiles have done that for me. And as the chef passed me a weighty mound stuffed in aluminum, he said that he hoped I enjoyed it. With the chilaquiles spread across the top of my car, I did exactly that.
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