The MEXICO Report
By Susie Albin-Najera
If you don’t live in Mexico, one of the good things about living in America is that you can experience the best of Mexico right here through the plentiful arts, crafts, cultural exhibits, celebrations, entertainment, markets, food, music and restaurants.
One of the benefits to taking Spanish classes at the beautiful campus of Instituto Cultural Oaxaca in the southern Mexican city of Oaxaca, is that you can select a number of cultural activities to complement your entire experience. When I chose Oaxacan cooking, Chef Mercedes introduced me to the art of making chilaquiles and I was hooked.
Since green tomatillos were the main ingredient we used in preparing this dish, my preference has always skewed toward the chilaquiles verdes. For those unfamiliar with chilaquiles, it is a popular Mexican dish, usually served for breakfast and typically consists of corn tortillas cut in quarters, fried and served with red or green sauce, topped with Mexican cream, onions and Cotija cheese.
Since that experience, my expectations have been high, and it has been difficult trying to recreate even a similar taste myself or locate a restaurant that served a somewhat equal comparison. Now, I have not been deemed a professional food critic, however, with the amount of chilaquiles my taste buds have experienced since taking that class, I think it could technically qualify me as an expert, or rather, a ‘chilaquiles connoisseur.’
It was not until recently that I could really declare my taste buds satisfied thanks to a little restaurant called La Casita Mexicana located in Bell, California, owned and operated by Chefs Jaime Martin del Campo and Ramiro Arvizu. Both natives of Jalisco, Mexico, Jaime and Ramiro’s deep devotion for authentic Mexican food, friendship, family tradition, and childhood memories, made their dream a reality: their very own Cenaduria (traditional Mexican restaurant). On our visit, we had the pleasure of meeting Chef Jaime who delivered not only a warm and friendly welcome, but a genuine and contagious smile, one of those impressions that just stays with you. We sat by the window and I gave the kids some coloring crayons and paper from my purse to get them settled.
Since my mission was a review of the chilaquiles, they decided to give us a sampling of the six of their seven types that they offer. Each type of chilaquiles at La Casita Mexicana are served with Cotija cheese, Mexican cream, red onions, a cheese quesadilla in cactusor chile guajillo tortilla and beans.
Along with freshly prepared, warm tortilla chips accompanied by a special mole sauce, we were first served a refreshing cactus fruit concoction, (la tuna is the Spanish botanical name for the prickly pear cactus fruit), which was smooth and delicious and prepared our palates. Next up, chilaquiles! First to arrive at our table were the red ones, ‘Chilaquiles Rojos’, served with a mild Cascabel (small round chili) sauce. Since I fancy the green ones most, I was skeptical about any other type, but nonetheless very excited to start the sampling. And these did not disappoint, in fact, they were so tasty and crisp, they had me raving in surprise at first bite.
Next, our gracious and friendly server, Lupita delivered the highly anticipated green ones, ‘Chilaquiles Verdes’ to our table. I will admit that I am a tough critic when it comes to chilaquiles because of my authentic high standards (I can’t help it, blame Oaxaca.) My face illuminated with joy as I tasted the first mouthwatering bite of chilaquiles verdes. Could this get any better? The tomatillo sauce was spicy and delectable, the tortillas were crispy, and adorned with everything a plate of chilaquiles should be, from the crema, chopped onions, freshly grated Cotija, to the little red chili adorning the top as an added visual. No matter how you sliced it, this was the real deal!
The kids continued to draw and eat. By this time, my four year old daughter Sonora was sketching what looked like a skewed version of a rainbow. Chilaquiles con Chili Chipotle, made with a smoked Chipotle Sauce, was next. Then Chilaquiles de Mole, Chilaquiles de Pepian Rojo and Chilaquiles de Pepian Verde. I’m sure I had died and gone to chilaquile heaven. Until this day, I never imagined mole chilaquiles but, made with 46 different ingredients, this traditional handmade sauce had become one of my new favorites.
“Look at the rainbow I drew Mommy,” said Sonora. The paper was a bit translucent, so I turned it over and held it up to the window. What I saw was the Virgin of Guadalupe. What I saw was a MIRACLE! I held it up to the portrait of the Virgin hanging on the wall to compare. Even my husband, who thinks I over exaggerate as it is, agreed. The chef came out with real tears in his eyes and goose bumps on his arms, declaring this spot sacred. I knew this would be a special breakfast, but I never imagined it would be a sacred breakfast! After all the commotion had settled, we ended our meal with a dessert pastry, Churros con Cajeta, (churros filled with Mexican caramel) accompanied by Chocolate Mexicano (hot Mexican chocolate). It was the perfect ending to our ‘miraculous chilaquiles’.
The next time you are craving homemade chilaquiles, or when both your mom and grandma do not feel like cooking, or if you have never experienced chilaquiles, I invite you to try, in my opinion, the best ones north of Mexico at La Casita Mexicana!
When in Mexico, I highly recommend these places for AMAZING chilaquiles:
– Casa de Mole, Tijuana, Baja Norte
– El Sabor de Oaxaca, La Crucecita (Huatulco, Oaxaca)