On a Sunday morning in Mexico City’s Condesa neighborhood, the few people on the street mostly jog or bike or power walk. Trainers adorn their feet, spandex hugs their thighs, dogs tug their leashes.
These paragons of fitness select exercise to combat their hangovers, a choice that reflects the aspirational character of the upper-middle-class neighborhood. Many of the restaurants and cafes in the neighborhood encourage these health-centric lifestyles, as “natural this” and “green that” and “vegan blah blah blah” stores appear on every block.
But like a chocolate chip cookie infiltrating a salad, the puesto on the corner of Alfonso Reyes and Tamaulipas stands in open defiance of the neighborhood’s pursuit of physical wellness, opting instead to pursue hedonistic aims. La Esquina del Chilaquil serves tortas de chilaquiles, also known as tecolotas, an extravagant variant of the already indulgent breakfast meal. It attracts go-getters of a different sort – those who believe the best cure for Saturday night’s alcoholic excesses is an early morning meal of a thousand calories’ worth of grease and carbs and fried meat.
The word “chilaquiles” originates from the pre-Columbian Nahuatl word chīlaquīlli, which roughly translates to “bathed in chili.” No one is certain when the dish was created, but it appeared in an English-language cookbook of Mexican food in 1898. Since then, the dish has flourished wherever Mexicans reside, appearing on menus from the Yucatán to New York to California.
In some regional variations, the fried corn chips, or totopos, remain crispy. Traditionally though, the salsa drowns the totopos, leaving them delightfully soggy. Much like french toast or frittatas, chilaquiles is a meal seemingly designed for the reuse of leftovers. Day-old tortillas that lack preservatives dry out and harden. Frying them and then bathing them in a spicy tomatillo sauce makes them edible again. Similarly, an overabundance of chilaquiles cooked for a family leaves an unappealing goop of soggy fried tortillas and lukewarm salsa. What better way to revitalize the meal than nestle it in a crisp torta?
The puesto now called La Esquina de Chilaquil was first opened as a vendor of tamales in 1950 by the great-grandmother of the current proprietors, sisters Catalina and Cristina. The family passed the tamale business down through generations, but it was only in 1998 that the sisters began selling tecolotas, a dish served to them by their grandmother. Following their introduction of tortas de chilaquiles, “Business grew very fast,” says Jose Luis Estrella, an employee who helps around the puesto as Catalina and Cristina furiously dish out tortas. “Others tried to copy us. But our tortas de chilaquiles are still the most famous” in Mexico City.
In D.F., the best way to discern quality among the city’s innumerable street vendors is to measure the line of people waiting to be served. By this metric, La Esquina has little competition, especially at 10am on a weekend morning; while most puestos in Condesa are trying to lure passers-by with sweet talk, the cooks at La Esquina work at a furious pace, silently and rarely looking up from their work, attempting to appease the block-long line of hungry breakfasters, some of whom claim their spots before the puesto even opens at 8am.
After waiting in line for 45 minutes, tortured by the downwind-drifting aromas emanating from the puesto, customers are rewarded with Catalina’s rapid binding of precooked ingredients laid before them in plastic containers sprawled atop a folding table. A serrated knife opens up a French roll twice the size of a man’s fist. A small spoon flattens a thin layer of refried black beans onto the bread. Over the beans, Catalina presses one of two types of meat, breaded chicken milanesa or pulled pork cochinita pibil. A serving spoon scoops a load of chilaquiles, bathed in red or green salsas, from a plastic bin. As chilaquiles go, La Esquina’s version falls on the mushy side of the spectrum, the salsa and fried tortilla mixture plopped off the spoon and into the roll like steaming hot pudding. Cojita cheese, a crumbled Mexican staple from the state of Michoacán, and a savory crema are the final additions to the sandwich, which Cristina wraps and serves to customers with one hand, taking 35 pesos (US$1.80) of payment for the tecolata with the other.
On a recent sunny Sunday morning, after buying a torta de chilaquiles, we hustled over to the nearest bench, aiming to scarf our sandwich while steam still puffed from its interior. Sitting just off the tree-lined walkway that runs down the center of Alfonso Reyes, we watched with surprise as a group of bikers in skintight neon outfits, still sweating from their morning rides, locked their bikes to a lamppost and took their place at the back of the long line. This surprise subsided as we bit into our tecolata, which dazzled the mouth. Textures complemented each other, the crunch of bread against the easy give of mush within. The crema instantly cooled the subtle pinch of spice from the salsa verde. The meat and beans and drowned tortillas, all fried separately, compacted and gave way under the pressure of our teeth. It was delicious.
Suddenly the long line made sense. And so did the bikers, who would soon nullify a morning’s worth of calorie loss in only a handful of bites. For in Mexico, even the most diligent aspirants to six-pack abs and rock-hard glutes must occasionally relent and join the rest of us in enjoying a meal as delicious as it is detrimental to our waistlines.
Before leaving, we asked Jose Luis why La Esquina retains the tecolota throne. He answered decisively. “The quality.” Then, he added with a smile, “And they’re made with love.”