Food History Lesson: Enchiladas as we know them are not authentically Mexican.
Blows the mind, doesn't it? Ok, maybe not. We all know how easily foreign foods get corrupted when American chefs get their butter/cheese/sugar covered hands on them. In ancient Mexico, pre-Columbians would take tortillas made from ground corn treated with lime and dip them in chili sauce. No meat fillings, no gooey cheese. The American "enchilada" wasn't mentioned until the late 1800s, when recipes were published in a few cookbooks.
Since everything's better when smothered in cheese -- at least to the American palate -- we concentrated on these gringo enchiladas for today's battle.
In One Corner: Secreto
4232 E. Chandler Blvd. in Phoenix
My dining partner and I had been dying to try Secreto since it replaced Havana Cafe in the Ahwatukee shopping plaza that also houses Cupz n' Crepes. The place is owned by Barbara Brown, ex-wife of restaurateur Richardson Browne, and features many of the New Mexican staple dishes that made Richardson's and Dick's Hideaway so popular. Reviews for the place are pretty schizophrenic -- everything from glowing praises from critics and five-star reviews to Urbanspooner Dain's thumbs down. The strange disparity only increased our curiosity.
Inside, Secreto is Richardson's Light, with the same dark speakeasy atmosphere and adobe booths. The menu opens with an interesting tale of 17th century monks who smuggled illegal grapevines into New Mexico under the noses of the invading Spaniards. It also features carne adovada, tamales, green chile stew and other New Mexican inspired plates.
We ordered up a lunch plate of cheese, chicken and shrimp enchiladas in green chile sauce, served with rice and beans. It arrived on a hot metal plate (another Richardson's trademark) that our server warned us about. Each enchilada was color-coded: yellow-beige for cheese, blue for shrimp and orange for chicken. The edges were a little crispy, but not overly so.
The difference in taste and texture of each tortilla was really highlighted by the fillings. The cheese enchilada was salty and stringy, with a variety of white and yellow cheeses perfectly melted underneath the slightly bland yellow tortilla. The green sauce was mild, with just a hint of afterburn and lots of flavor. My companion preferred the chicken enchilada, which featured shredded white meat chicken inside an earthy orange tortilla. The slight dryness of the chicken was mitigated by the loads of green chili and cheese on top and the juicy beans served on the side.
"Wait, is there wine in these beans?" questioned my partner. "There's something, a strange alcohol taste to them that's intriguing and complex."
My guess was beer, which turned out to be correct. The malty, pungent taste of the beans gave that one away. The Spanish rice was typical, not particularly outstanding but a nice mix with the other ingredients. My favorite of the trio was the shrimp version, a decadent blend of cheeses and plump, whole shrimp without a trace of fishiness. The blue corn tortilla had a thick, pasty texture and delicious nutty masa taste.
At $12 it was a little pricey for lunch, but the amount and quality of the food was well worth it.
In the Other Corner: Los Dos Molinos
1010 E. Washington St. in Phoenix
I eventually gave up on trying to find an online consensus of the best local place for enchiladas and settled on Los Dos Molinos, which Yelper Matt M. recently gave 4 stars to in part for their enchiladas. There are several locations of the family-owned Los Dos, including a lone New York branch and the downtown one we discovered tucked in a Hispanic bridal plaza. The latter offers a nice outdoor patio, colorful dining room and a cantina with buffalo hides and humorous signs on the walls (e.g. the "phone cost chart" for giving excuses to your wife).
At the prompting of our server, we ordered the supposedly milder red chile enchilada dinner. Sadly we had to choose cheese OR chicken OR beef as they don't allow combinations. We opted for chicken, served on homemade blue corn tortillas with a fried egg on top. Our meals arrived in short order and we dug in to... wait, what the hell is this???
Forget those dried-out flat midnight blue things they call tortillas in other restaurants. This beauty was a quarter-inch thick doughy circle in bright turquoise. I swore I saw the same shade on a bridesmaid gown in the window next door!
The tortilla had a delicious nutty, slightly sweet flavor from the masa base and a soft chewy texture complimented by the stiffer filling. The chicken was high quality and lean, but very dry unless mixed with the watery beans and stingy sprinkles of melted cheese.
The "mild" red chile sauce was the kicker. It had a fast burn that somehow skipped the tongue but managed to permeate the esophagus pretty well. Even the blander beans and too-crisp fried egg didn't help mitigate the acid that welled up in my stomach in reaction to the assault. Arizona natives likely won't bat an eyelash at this sauce, but weak stomached transplants like me best be prepared.
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"Have some more of that red sauce and it'll clear out your sinuses," joked my partner as he greedily munched away on his less hot burrito and I wiped my nose for the twentieth time. Bastard!
The Winner: If you like your food spicy and your tortillas extra thick, Los Dos is the place. But Secreto wins the whole enchilada today for letting the natural flavors -- not the heat -- shine in their tri-colored plate.