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Column: Comfort food confessional: My lifelong quest to find, or create, the perfect chilaquiles

Chef Jimmy Shaw with chilaquiles in the kitchen of Lotería Grill in Los Angeles.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

In the 1980s, when Grace and Tony Lopez boarded a plane in California to visit me in Philadelphia, they traveled with a blue-and-white cooler that contained a most precious cargo.

Chilaquiles.

This simple dish of saucy chips and chiles was unavailable in my new home. So my parents would go to New Mecca Cafe in the East Bay town of Pittsburg, where I had ordered chilaquiles about a thousand times, and purchase a bag of tortilla chips and half a gallon of the secret sauce.

They froze the sauce, which thawed out on its journey to the East Coast. My mother then heated this miraculous concoction, ladled it over the perfectly crispy chips and sprinkled cheese on top.

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Chilaquiles at Lotería Grill.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

As a Philadelphian might say, it tasted so good I almost wanted to pay my taxes.

Decades have come and gone. My obsession has not.

I have eaten chilaquiles at every opportunity, and I have tried for years to re-create the New Mecca Cafe version in my kitchen. I got to thinking about comfort food because we have entered traditional tamale season, and I would never say no to a tamale.

But I remain loyal to my first love. And I’ve decided it’s finally time to come clean about my affliction and to share some trade secrets for which you will be eternally grateful. Yes, I know the world is in peril and chaos reigns, themes I will return to in time. But when has comfort food been more important than now?

Chef Raul Cruz makes chilaquiles at Loteria Grill in Los Angeles on December 10, 2021.
Chef Raul Cruz in the kitchen at Lotería Grill.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Fortunately for me, a Guadalajara native in 1986 opened a restaurant in Philadelphia, and I no longer had to wait for my chips to be flown in from California. Chilaquiles weren’t on the menu at Tequilas, but owner David Suro kindly offered to whip some up for me.

“How do you like them prepared?” he asked.

We hope our guide will lead you to some delicious meals.

I wasn’t sure what he meant. I thought there was only one way to do it. No, said Suro, whose restaurant is still going strong. Everyone puts their own twist on it.

Suro’s version was a godsend but nothing like New Mecca’s soupy version. My mother asked the Mecca owners their secret and passed along this piece of intelligence: Start with pork shoulder.

Of all the things my mother imparted to me over the years, nothing was more invaluable or life-sustaining than those four words of advice.

I seared and braised the pork and tried to figure out the rest on my own, adding stock, diced tomatoes, chiles, onions and garlic. I kept the pot on a low simmer for hours, set aside the pork meat for the next day’s burritos and ladled the sauce over chips.

Not bad, not great, and it’s still a work in progress. Believe me when I say I will never give up.

Twenty years ago, I moved to Los Angeles, and while chilaquiles were not the primary motivation, they were near the top of the list. If you travel half a mile in any direction in L.A. and can’t find them, go back and look again.

You can get chilaquiles with red or green salsa. You can top them with eggs, chicken, beef, avocado or whatever else. There are no rules, except that chilaquiles are not found on many diet plans. If you wake up hungover, this is your dish. But don’t limit yourself to morning consumption. Brunch, lunch, dinner — you can’t go wrong.

Tacos Delta's chilaquiles two ways: red and green.
(Steve Lopez / Los Angeles Times)

Chilaquiles love is a very personal thing, and you and I may have different tastes. But two of my favorites are at Tacos Delta in Silver Lake and Lotería Grill on West Pico Boulevard in Mid-City.

On Friday I went to both for breakfast. Yes, I had breakfast twice. It’s research. A public service.

Sergio Valdivia opened Tacos Delta in 1981.

“It used to be all gangsters here,” said his daughter Irma, who told me the family has seen a world of change through the windows of their little red restaurant shack. But the menu hasn’t changed much at all.

Irma said her father gets to work at 4 a.m. to begin prep work in the kitchen. Her mother, Maria Esther, works there, too, as do the Valdivias’ two sons and other daughter. Irma told me the family would rather not reveal the chilaquiles recipe, but her dad shared with me that he’s riding his mother’s apron strings, doing it the way she did when he was growing up in Guadalajara.

Sergio and Maria Esther Valdivia
Sergio and Maria Esther Valdivia have made chilaquiles at Tacos Delta since 1981.
(Steve Lopez / Los Angeles Times)

“I roast the tomatoes,” he said, and he toasts dry chiles.

I ordered the red chilaquiles, which are more popular here than the green.

“The traditional way,” said Irma.

If you’re having trouble opening your eyes, this will cure that. I got mine with scrambled eggs and would like to nominate Sergio Valdivia for the Nobel Prize.

But if you’re more inclined toward green, I recommend Lotería Grill. A few years ago, my family wanted to know what I wanted to do on my birthday, and I did not hesitate. We went to the Farmers Market at 3rd and Fairfax, where Lotería used to have a stall. I wish I had more birthdays left.

Chef Jimmy Shaw at Lotería Grill.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Jimmy Shaw, owner of Lotería, told me that when he thinks about chilaquiles, he thinks about growing up in Mexico City, where tortillas were delivered by a guy on a motorcycle with a sidecar. You went out, lifted the lid and grabbed your tortillas.

“Chilaquiles,” he said, “are what you do with yesterday’s leftover tortillas.”

And what you do is look in the refrigerator, check the cupboards, cut and crisp the tortillas — stale ones work better for chilaquiles — and toss whatever is available into the skillet.

“There are as many chilaquiles recipes as there are homes in Mexico,” said Shaw, who still uses his mother’s salsa recipes whether he’s making verde or chipotle chilaquiles.

Lotería’s restaurants at the Farmer’s Market and in Hollywood are closed, but Shaw has one at LAX and a takeout and catering joint on Pico Boulevard west of Arlington Avenue. It’s the same kitchen, he said, where a woman used to make empanadas for Trader Joe’s.

Shaw took me into the kitchen Friday and talked me through the process as chef Saul Cruz worked his artistry at the grill.

He heated a skillet. He poured in a tart, creamy, smooth salsa verde of tomatillos and jalapeños, with a pinch of cheese for texture. He threw in the precrisped golden tortilla triangles, flicking the pan handle to send the chips tumbling in perfect choreography, like a deck of cards in a magic trick.

“You want the chips to get friendly with the sauce but not get married,” said Shaw, because there may be no greater American tragedy than chilaquiles chips that get soggy.

And one way to avoid that, Shaw said, is to make sure you use the right tortilla. Thin corn tortillas are what end up as chips in a basket. For chilaquiles or enchiladas, he said, you want a sturdier, two-ply tortilla made with tastier corn masa flour, such as Maseca.

After just a few minutes, Cruz dumped the chilaquiles onto a plate and topped them with cheese, cilantro, onion and zigzags of crema.

Mushrooms take the place of meat in this vegan chilaquiles recipe from chef Jocelyn Ramirez of Todo Verde.

If one day I find myself in a jam, and I’m asked to choose my last meal, I’m calling Jimmy and Saul.

Until then, my research continues. If you have a chilaquiles joint you love, please tell me about it. If you have a twist on the recipe, I’m ready to begin recording.

By the way, I called New Mecca Cafe the other day. Teresa “Terry” Muniz, who is still in charge of the restaurant she and her late husband, Guillermo, bought in 1964, told me chilaquiles are still the most popular dish on the menu, and the recipe remains unchanged.

I told her about my attempt to re-create the magic. I was close, Muniz said, but off on a few ingredients, which explains why I have been unable to duplicate the taste of my childhood.

Don’t use onions, said Muniz, 82. Use Monterey Jack instead of cotija. And no need to roast my own chiles, she said. A can of Ortega does the trick.

And how long do you simmer the pork and all the rest on the burner?

“Forever and a day,” she said.

Back into the kitchen I go. One of these years, I’m going to get it just right.

steve.lopez@latimes.com


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