The Big Enchilada

Enchiladas Zacatecanas from Las Manitas, Austin

Quick: define “enchilada.” Most people would say it’s a rolled or folded tortilla filled with something savory, topped with a sauce, and blanketed in melted cheese. And that would certainly be one correct definition. But if you go by the etymology of the word, there’s more to it. The root word is “chile,” and “enchilada” means “chile’d” (or chile-treated). (The word “tortilla,” which is the thing being chile’d, is understood.) Mexican cooking is full of similar pairs, such as tomate and entomatada (treated or prepared with tomatoes), frijol and enfrijolada (with beans), pan and empanada (with bread).

The enchilada is the workhorse of Mexican cooking, a vehicle so versatile you could fill an entire cookbook with recipes. These enchiladas, served at Las Manitas, are typical of the cuisine of the Mexican state of Zacatecas. Their sauce is fresh and light, but it’s their moist, tomatoey, oniony chicken filling that makes them so full-flavored and delicious. One more thing: Before the cooks at Las Manitas would let us use this recipe, they made us promise to tell you something. You must prepare it with the care that comes from respect and love for those you are feeding. If you don’t, it will not turn out right. Recipe.


Catch the Huevo

Hope Rodriguez’s Breakfast Tacos

The best-loved individual at Texas Monthly is not the publisher, not the editor, not even the woman who distributes the paychecks. The most popular person is art coordinator Hope Rodriguez, who has been making breakfast tacos for grateful staff members for twenty years. Twice a week, Hope arrives with an insulated case of fresh, plump tacos and a Mason jar of salsa. The tortillas are filled with combinations of scrambled eggs, potatoes, refried beans, cheese, chorizo, and bacon; the tomato salsa is a family recipe.

“I make the tortillas fresh because they’re much more tender than store-bought ones,” Hope says. She roasts the jalapeños to give them extra flavor, cooks the chorizo well done and the bacon crisp, and uses light oils whenever possible. Another key aspect—a lifetime of practice—is harder to quantify but much in evidence. Hope learned how to make all the basic Tex-Mex dishes when she was thirteen. “My parents owned a restaurant in Cuero,” she says, “and they had to be there from early to late.” As soon as she was old enough, she was drafted to cook for her seven brothers and sisters (two other siblings were grown). She learned well. The difference between her tacos and commercial tacos is the difference between home cooking and mass production. There simply is no comparison. Recipe.

Dip Skinny

Spicy Tomato-Avocado Salsa From Tacos Santa Cecilia, El Paso

In Texas a basket of warm chips and a slap-your-face fresh salsa are the hallmarks of a good Mexican restaurant. I know they may not be served that way deep in the home country, but they are here, and that’s that. When I dip a chip into the bowl only to find some pink, foamy salsa, stuff that has been blended senseless, my heart sinks. A salsa should either have enough texture to perch on a chip or be so thick and smooth that it readily coats a chip. A salsa with the right amount of heat renders the taste buds more sensitive to other flavors. It dances on your tongue.

At Tacos Santa Cecilia, one of the best salsas I’ve eaten anywhere is whipped up fresh every day (recipe on page 138). The ingredients are basic: ripe red tomatoes, white onion, scallions, cilantro, fiery chiles, and—here’s the restaurant’s twist—avocado. The addition of chunks of avocado is not so unusual in Mexican border towns, but I have never before seen it blended into the sauce. This salsa is great on pork, beef, or chicken tacos. And if you add several spoonfuls to some mashed avocado, you’ll have one of the best guacamoles you’ll ever eat. Recipe.

Milk Made

Tres Leches Cake From Cafe Central, El Paso

You’re probably thinking: that picture doesn’t LOOK like a mexican dessert (image not available online). But it is. Pastel tres leches (“three-milk cake”) appeared in Mexico perhaps a generation ago. It swept through the social set and soon became the thing to serve at fancy parties. A butter cake soaked in three kinds of milk and most often topped with billows of meringue, it is sweet and insanely rich.

Nobody knows where this confection came from. Mexican cooking authority Maria Dolores Torres Yzabal (the co-author of The Mexican Gourmet cookbook) thinks it might have originated in a Mexico City bakery whose name is now lost. In her cookbook The Taste of Mexico, Patricia Quintana says that it first appeared in the state of Sinaloa. To complicate matters further, Mexico-born chef Roberto Santibañez of Austin’s Fonda San Miguel has friends in Guatemala and Nicaragua who swear the cake is native to their countries. His pet theory is that it came from a promotional recipe once distributed in Latin America, perhaps on cans of evaporated milk or with a brand of electric mixer.

Wherever it started, tres leches cake has now established itself in Texas. This recipe from Cafe Central’s pastry chef, Maria Devora—replaces the usual meringue with a satiny sugar-cream frosting. Its tres leches are evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk, and heavy cream. This cake’s definitely got milk. Recipe

Thoroughly Modern Chile

Chiles Rellenos With Guajillo Sauce From Taco Milagro, Houston

If any one thing has changed the face of Mexican cooking in Texas, it is the chiles you can get your hands on today. Not all that long ago, jalapeños were the only fresh chiles to be found in grocery produce sections. As for dried chiles, forget it. The few pitiful specimens there were came in little cellophane packages that had been exported prior to the reign of Montezuma. These days, almost any big-city supermarket will have gleaming bins of poblanos, anchos, serranos, chiles de árbol, chipotles, pasillas, guajillos, and more. What was novel yesterday is commonplace today. Habaneros? Positively ho-hum.

The recipe for this dish draws on that abundance. A poblano chile, with its fresh flavor of green beans or bell peppers (without the metallic undertones), forms the base. It balances the unctuous cheese filling and serves as a foil for the sauce, which is made from dried, garnet-red guajillos. A smooth, shiny-skinned chile whose seeds rattle when it is shaken, a guajillo is quite picante and has a distinctive flavor somewhere between the sweet tanginess of cranberries and the astringency of strong tea. Although it is common for chiles rellenos to be fried in batter, here they’re simply roasted, emphasizing the not-so-subtle interplay of chile on chile. Recipe.

Shrimply Delicious

Cilantro—Pumpkin Seed Shrimp From El Mirador, San Antonio

I’ve often wondered exactly what the Aztecs, Maya, and other indigenous peoples of Mexico were eating before the Spanish arrived. They didn’t have the Old World’s cattle, goats, or pigs and the dairy products and lard that came from them, or such European grains as wheat and rye.

The answer, of course, is that meso-Americans were eating quite well, thank you very much. They had a multitude of dishes based on corn, beans, chiles, tomatoes, avocados, and chocolate, not to mention animals such as turkeys and tender little dogs. And they had a wealth of nuts and seeds, chief among them pumpkin seeds. Those early, pre-jack-o’-lantern-type pumpkins were smaller and more varied than what we are used to, but their seeds, then as now, were delicious, especially when toasted and ground up with spices and other ingredients.

This pumpkin seed sauce from chef Paul Rodriguez is an easy-to-make variation on a traditional Mexican sauce called a pipián (pronounced peep-e-ahn). A versatile adjunct to meats, poultry, seafood, and vegetables, pipianes may be thick and coarsely textured or satiny and thin, like cream soups. Rodriguez’s pestolike creation doesn’t call for as much work—all the grinding, toasting, and continuous stirring—but it does have the characteristic nutty taste of pumpkin seeds balanced with the astringency of cilantro. Cheese, an Old World ingredient, adds a touch of richness. Recipe


Margaritas From the Kentucky Club, Juarez

One of the many creation myths about the margarita is that it was invented in Juárez in 1942 by bartender Francisco Morales. He has been gone many years, but you can still have a perfect margarita there courtesy of Lorenzo Hernandez, who has been making them at the Kentucky Club, just across the international bridge on Avenida Juárez, for 53 years. As Hernandez will tell you, many different tequilas and orange liqueurs make excellent margaritas. But the single most important ingredient in a top-notch margarita is the juice of Mexican limes. True, Mexican limes are small and they have a lot of annoying seeds. But margaritas just don’t taste right without them. (For that matter, neither does caldo de pollo, ceviche, pozole, or guacamole. Mexican limes are as essential to the Mexican kitchen as chiles, corn, and beans.)

You will, of course, be tempted to go the easy route and substitute ordinary big, green, egg-shaped limes (called Persian or Tahiti limes) for little, round Mexican limes. Do not succumb unless you have no recourse. Mexican limes, which are also known as Key limes, are tart and sweet and have many flavor nuances, whereas ordinary limes are mainly sour. So buy yourself a heavy-duty lime juicer and have at it. The difference is worth the trouble. Recipe.