Chilaquiles -- a starchy, spicy, comforting dish of quartered and fried corn tortillas, ladled with or simmered in chile sauce -- are one of Mexico's favorite hangover cures. They're also the go-to for thrifty Mexican mamas who want to whip up a quick breakfast and get rid of going-stale tortillas in one delicious swoop.
This once hard-to-find Mexican standby has been co-opted in recent years by American restaurants (Over Easy, Heart and Soul Cafe, FnB and Chelsea's Kitchen come to mind), but for this particular battle, we're going old school, pitting 50-year-old La Tolteca against 45-year-old Comedor Guadalajara. Let's see whose chilaquiles are more chill . . .
But first, it's important to note that chilaquiles recipes are as varied as the (possibly hungover) people who make them. Some cooks ladle red chile or green chile over the chips at the last minute (which leaves the chips firm and mostly crisp), while others simmer the chips in sauce until they soften and get meaty (as they do in Tex-Mex migas). Still other cooks (Charleen Badman, we're looking at you), turn chilaquiles into a thick and cheesy, lasagna-like casserole. Chilaquiles can be supremely simple or wildly ornate, a mash-up of everything in the fridge, including cheese, onions, chicken, beef, pork and sliced avocado. They're often topped with or served alongside eggs -- could be fried, could be scrambled. When it comes to chilaquiles, there's no wrong answer. It all boils down to what you like.
In this corner: La Tolteca
The Setup: Opened in 1962 in a huge, boxy building on Van Buren, La Tolteca is Disneyland for Mexican food-lovers -- offering a bakery, meat shop, deli, market, kitchen supply and restaurant under one roof. If the aroma of grilled chickens near the front door doesn't make you ravenous, the bakery case -- stocked with pan dulce, conchas and fruit-filled empanadas surely will. It's really, really hard not to over-order here because there's so much to try: ceviche, flan, house-made tortillas, tortas (including obscure ahogado, Mexico's answer to the French dip), aguas frescas, the list is endless and endlessly tempting.
The Good: The menu says the chilaquiles are topped with chicken, but when you place your order, the counter person will ask you which meat, if any, you prefer: chicken, carnitas, carne asada, pork al pastor and maybe a few others. Couldn't tell you. She had me at al pastor. The dish, which falls into the ornate category, comes mixed with the meat of your choice, scrambled eggs, queso fresco, sour cream, onion, cilantro and avocado, making it a kind of chilaquiles-meets-nachos situation. It's got a decidedly spicy kick, which I love. The chips, cut in strips and triangles, are still plenty crisp, as if the chile sauce has been poured over them at the last minute.
The Bad: There's nothing remotely bad about this dish, although the chile sauce is definitely on the thin side. It sloshes around the bottom of the plate. Also, the pastor meat was a tad too firm and chewy for my taste.
The Price: $6.59
In the other corner: Comedor Guadalajara
The Setup: Founded in 1968 by Magdaleno Sanchez, this windowless and equally boxy restaurant doesn't look promising from the outside, but inside, it's clean, comfortable and tasteful, thanks to a remodel three or four years ago. No Mexican kitsch here, just soft brown walls, a massive armoire and a few decorative pieces, which lend a modestly upscale look. The place has long been a South Phoenix standby for Mexican breakfasts and grilled dishes, including a seafood platter. So stop being a ninny about the location and get yourself in here. The old school AZ-Mex food is awesome.
The good: Now we're getting somewhere. This is the sauce I dream of when it comes to chilaquiles -- luxurious red chile with earthy undertones. Its subtle heat builds on the tongue but doesn't compete with accompanying machaca, an ultra-rich juicy version cooked with tomatoes, onion and sliced jalapeño. There's a lot going on here and it's all good, including creamy refrieds topped with a melt of cheddar and jack cheeses. Like I said, AZ-Mex as we know and love it. I should add that the chips are a tad bit softer than those at La Tolteca, but you won't hear me complaining. When the chips get just a wee bit soft, they take on a meaty texture.Topped with two over-easy eggs (my request), whose soft yolks ooze over the chips, this is pure heaven. Some commenter on the internet said Comedor didn't know what chilaquiles are, to which I would respond, "You, anonymous sir, are a dolt." These are super-traditional, no-frills chilaquiles -- spicy, starchy Comfortus Maximus -- and I love them.
The Bad: Nada, Amigos.
The Price: $9.95 but you're getting a mound of excellent machaca in the deal.
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The Verdict: Look, we're comparing apples to oranges here (that's the nature of chilaquiles), and you're probably going to be insanely happy either way. In fact, some of you will actually prefer La Tolteca's busier, sexier version. But for me, the hands-down winner, the dish I've dreamed of for days since, is the simple, satisfying plate of chilaquiles and machaca at Comedor Guadalajara.