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It’s a phrase my husband’s uttered over and over again throughout quarantine, today’s remark coming with an extra ounce of frustration. I’ve made beans practically every night for dinner, half for nutrition and half to work around grocery store limits. But this pot of beans isn’t for dinner, it’s for breakfast. It’s yet another attempt at re-creating a breakfast sandwich from Mexico City that I can’t stop thinking about.
Mexico City is known for great food, with more must-visit restaurants than you could possibly visit in a month. After eating at a dozen of them, I came to the conclusion I couldn’t pick a favorite.
That is, until the last morning of my trip when I ate at La Esquina del Chilaquil (“chilaquiles corner”).
This street food stand serves breakfast to devoted fans, a line snaking far down the block. I was far back in the line, far enough that I couldn’t even smell what they’re serving. Still, I knew it must be good. Mexicans don’t wait in line for food unless there’s a good reason — after all, there are fifteen other options within a two-minute walk. Here, everyone orders tecolotas (or tortas de chilaquiles), a food I had never heard of before this trip, and one you’ll have a hard time finding anywhere except Mexico City.
And so I stood in line and waited as the people in front of me order sandwiches, often five or ten at a time, clearly picking up tecolotas for the entire office the way I would bring in a box of donuts or perhaps run out for Starbucks for everyone. I waited and waited and waited…an entire hour passing by before it was finally my turn to order. I nearly gave up but the strangers in line encouraged me not to. When I asked if it was really that good, their response was unanimous. Vale la pena, they said. It’s worth the wait.
By the time I ordered, I knew precisely what to ask for: la torta de chilaquiles verdes con milanesa. A sandwich with green chilaquiles and fried chicken cutlet.
When I finally got mine, my heart sank. It had to be the ugliest sandwich I’ve ever seen. The sauce is a putrid green that runs into the various whites and beiges from the rest of the sandwich. The only other dash of color comes from the refried black beans, which is more of a purplish-gray that reminds me of ashen skin. If you eat with your eyes first, you’ll lose your appetite. There are no points for presentation here.
Despite its unseemly appearance, the first bite hooked me immediately.
It starts with a light, crispy roll fresh from the baker and a schmear of refried beans. From there, you’ve got a thin piece of milanesa chicken — so thin, it’s more breading than protein. The magic is the next layer, the namesake chilaquiles. You’ll find these day-old tortilla chips, soaked in red or green sauce, on every breakfast menu in the city, but never on a sandwich. They complete it with an unceremonious squirt of crema and some queso fresco. It doesn’t sound like it should work — it’s carbs on carbs on carbs — but it does.
I ate half the sandwich before I knew it. Each bite came faster than the last; it was so good, I couldn’t wait to get the next hit. It wasn’t until I looked down and realized I had eaten 400 calories in ninety seconds that I thought I should savor it. I had waited an hour for this flavor bomb. I couldn’t let it disappear so quickly.
Once I slowed down, I noticed the layers of flavor in the green chilaquiles. The acidic punch seemed to come straight from the tomatillos, a bright, vegetal flavor that powered through the heaviness of carbs and cream. The garlic comes through, but not in a punchy way. There’s a hint of heat, but only a little. I’d qualify this one more in the herbacious column than the picante one.
The textures are interesting, too. The roll had a crisp exterior, a necessary contrast to the mash of cooked-down tortilla strips and beans. The milanesa wasn’t crispy at all — it wasn’t cooked to order, there were dozens of patties, ready to go — but surprisingly I didn’t mind. The salt from the milanesa’s breading and the queso fresco gave it that final bump. Altogether, the combination worked exactly as is.
Eventually, and more appreciatively, I worked my way to the end of the sandwich. When it was gone, I mourned its loss, knowing I didn’t have another hour to spare to wait for another.
It’s ironic that this dish invented to use up leftovers ended up being the best bite of my trip. Chilaquiles themselves are designed to use old tortillas and this sandwich takes it one step further, using up the leftover leftovers. Like my annual turkey-and-stuffing sandwich after Thanksgiving, this one is better the next day.
At the time, I assumed I’d have to wait until I returned to Mexico City in order to eat another torta de chilaquiles (next time, I’ll order three). I had no idea that a few months later, the world would be unsafe for travel and I’d have time to spare. Plenty of time, in fact, to experiment with making one of these at home.
That leads me back to the bowl of black beans soaking on my kitchen counter. I’ve tried making this sandwich twice already and this will be my third. My attempts were one delicious failure after another — it gives me an excuse to eat chilaquiles in the process, dutifully saving some for a sandwich later. My husband hasn’t minded the chicken milanesa either, although in our global-fusion kitchen, he keeps calling it schnitzel.
Always tasty, but never quite right, I wonder if I’ll ever be able to re-create it. My Latino grocer has great bolillo rolls, so I haven’t had to make those from scratch. The corn tortillas are right, too — the texture of my chilaquiles ends up spot-on. It’s the sauce (as always) that’s stumping me. Should I use jalapenos or serranos? How much onion? How much cilantro? Should I roast the tomatillos first? Are my tomatillos even the right ripeness, given that they were shipped from so far away?
Like any home chef who’s watched a hundred hours of the Food Network and thinks she’s more talented than she really is, I assume that if I just keep tasting and adjusting, maybe I’ll stumble upon the right recipe.
I’d give up, but when it tastes so good along the way, who cares if it’s never quite right?
La Esquina del Chilaquil
This small street food stall is at the corner of Alfonso Reyes & Avenida Tamaulipas in the Condesa neighborhood of Mexico City. In general, this area is excellent for foodies and is a great choice for where to stay in Mexico City.
Ordering is simple:
- Choose a meat: milanesa de pollo (chicken) or cochinita pibil (pork) or vegetariano (vegetarian/no meat).
- Choose your salsa: verde (green) or rojo (red).
- Or go for gold and order a “bomba” – that gives you half chicken, half pork, and half red, half green chilaquiles.
Depending on the variation you order, you’ll pay 35-45 pesos as of February 2020. Cash only.
The stall opens at 8am (like all restaurants in Mexico, this is an “ish”) and closes at 1pm unless they run out of food first. Apparently it’s busiest on Fridays — when locals pick up dozens for work — and Sundays — when locals pick up hangover cures for all their friends. The day of my visit was a Friday and was indeed busy. Supposedly if you go on a Monday or Tuesday before 9am, the line’s not bad. Regardless of what day you go, grab yourself a coffee to go from somewhere in the neighborhood to enjoy while waiting in line.