In Search of the Perfect Enchilada

Enchiladas Doña Clara at Polvo's

I make a conscious effort when I create blog content to be as useful and applicable to everyone who reads it as possible. I fully respect that we all have unique palates and different food preferences, which is what makes the culinary world go round. However, today’s post is all about me. More specifically it’s about my quest to find the perfect enchilada in Austin that doesn’t come from my own kitchen. And because my perfect enchilada is entirely influenced by my childhood on the border of Mexico in El Paso, my Austin-inspired palate is absolutely nowhere to be found. Given that I’m waxing rhapsodic about a very personal obsession, I fully understand if you’re off to find something else to do with your valuable time. I promise that I’ll be right back to creating content that’s all about you as soon as I’m done wallowing in my enchilada bliss.

It All Started in El Paso…

I grew up in El Paso with only a cotton field and a six lane highway separating me from the Rio Grande River and the border with Mexico. We travelled across the border to Juarez several times a month to shop and eat. Some of my fondest memories are of devouring fresh bolillos hot from the panderia oven in the back of the car while we waited to cross back in to El Paso.

I learned to love Mexican food on both sides of the border. We visited restaurants in Juarez as often as we visited those in El Paso, and I learned to make a variety of traditional Mexican dishes from our housekeeper or from the mothers and grandmothers of my school friends. I sat in their kitchens as they chopped onions, mixed masa, picked chilies from ristras, braised pork, and cooked fresh tortillas on a griddle. Needless to say, thanks to their influence, I have some very specific ideas about what makes great Mexican food great.

As a note, I’m deeply saddened by the seemingly endless cycle of violence that holds Juarez so firmly in its grasp. My world view, including but extending much beyond food, was shaped by the time I spent living near and visiting Juarez. It’s a great loss to Texas and our country as a whole that the border is effectively closed right now to locals and tourists alike. And while many of the restaurants and shops that we visited when I was young have moved across the border into the safety of El Paso, it’s just not quite the same experience. I look forward to the day that Juarez is safe enough for my daughter to visit and enjoy her first bolillo hot from the oven.

After traveling to the interior of Mexico and spending time in New Mexico, I became aware of how rich and diverse Mexico’s food culture really is, making me love it even more than I already did. I also realize that the food of my youth was regionalized and isn’t representative of all Mexican food. “Perfect Mexican food” to me is very much a factor of where I was raised – just as it should be. I love to explore the tastes and traditions of other regions, but when push comes to shove, I’m an El Paso Mexican food girl through-and-through. And, while I was raised by Southern women and my comfort foods list includes collard greens cooked with ham hocks, peach cobbler, perfectly fried fish with hushpuppies, and grits, when I’m ready for a meal that sooths my soul, I turn to El Paso-style enchiladas.

The Enchilada Trifecta

Red Chili Ristra

Red Chili Ristra - Photo by Katina Rogers

In my world, the perfect enchilada is:

  • Made with red chili sauce. The sauce I love is made from dried red chilies that are reconstituted, combined with a bit of garlic, and pureed. The result is an almost pure chili sauce that is bright red, tart, and oh-so tasty. If you’re curious about the process, simply Recipes has a great rundown of just what it takes to make a true red sauce. In El Paso the red chilies in sauce are often dried Anaheim chilies that are grown in areas like Hatch and strung up into ristras to dry. Depending on the chilies the sauce may be very mild or have a bit of heat. The sauce typically isn’t particularly smoky but is instead a very bright, red chili flavor. And that’s just the way I like it (uh-huh, uh-huh).
  • Double-Sauce and Baked. An enchilada is really nothing more than a filled tortilla that’s rolled and covered in sauce (and if you’re in New Mexico, it may not even be rolled). In theory, you can put such a dish together and on the table quickly, but so much opportunity is lost if you do. I was taught to sauce my enchiladas twice by 1) rolling softened tortillas in the sauce before filling and then 2) pouring the remaining sauce over the whole schebang after all the enchiladas are rolled. Then, to fuse the sauce with the tortillas and the other ingredients, you bake the enchiladas in a hot (425 degree) oven for 20-25 minutes until the cheese bubbles and the sauce and tortillas have become one.
  • Meatless. Maybe it’s because our housekeeper always made enchiladas with only cheese and onions, but from my perspective, there’s simply no place for meat in an enchilada. Trust me, I’ve tried almost every combination of enchilada and meat, and in the end the meat derails with the textural experience for me. Enchiladas should be gooey and stringy, with a little bit of support from the tortilla for added texture. Sort of like macaroni and cheese. Meat just gets in the way of the gooeyness and I just don’t like it. Onions bring a little tiny crunch to the party and that’s all I need. Fancy cheeses aren’t necessary either. A simple melty cheese like asadero or even Monterey Jack will do just fine thank you.

If you’re reading this and think I’m totally off my rocker about the perfect enchilada, I absolutely welcome your thoughts in the comments, but know this: I like my cheese and onion enchiladas double-sauced and baked. I’ve tried just about every combination of tortilla, sauce, and filling out there and I still come back to this trifecta as enchilada perfection. We may have to agree to disagree and that’s just fine with me.

Tex-Mex Enchiladas – A Shock to My System

When I moved to Austin as a college freshman over 20 years ago, there were a lot of new things to learn and new experiences to be had. Most of them I enjoyed and actively perused, but I was stunned to discover that my biggest stumbling block was Tex-Mex. I discovered the hard way that just because a sauce is red doesn’t mean it’s chili-based. In the center of Texas red sauces tend to taste more like chile, with a tomato base and chili powder added for chili flavor. And then, to make it even worse, said red sauces often have ground beef in them and are ladled over beef-filled tortillas. Ugh. If I want chile, I’ll have it in a bowl with some crackers. And, as much as I love tomatoes, there are just way too many of them in Tex-Mex cooking. They often take the place of my beloved chili, possibly to make the food more approachable, I really don’t know. I would more often than not walk away from dinner at an Austin Mexican restaurant unsatisfied by any enchiladas I’d ordered. Soon, I simply stopped ordering them. Then, when I’d return home to El Paso, I would gorge myself silly on enchiladas to fortify myself until my next visit. Of course in the interim I’ve learned to make the enchiladas I love so much, but when I’m on the hunt for comfort food, it’s much better if someone else makes it for me.

I’m happy to report that I have learned to enjoy Tex-Mex cooking for what it is. There are a handful of restaurants in town that I can go to and have all sorts of great dishes. I’ve even come to enjoy the occasional Tex-Mex enchilada. In fact, one of my favorite dirty foodie secrets is that I love the Enchilada Queso at El Mercado and it’s a Tex-Mex as you can get. They stuff corn tortillas with cheese, top them with a red chile beef sauce and cover the whole thing with a big ol’ ladel of queso. My childhood housekeeper would shriek and run away from such a thing, but I clean my plate every time. So while I’ve come to appreciate Tex-Mex as just another regional cuisine, and I’ve experience amazing interior-inspired Mexican food at local restaurants like Fonda San Miguel, I’d gone 20 years or so without a local source for an enchilada I can truly love.

Until I went to Polvo’s.

Finally, a Source

Guajillo Chiles

Guajillo Chilies - Photo by Javier Lastras

It’s not like Polvo’s is new to Austin. They’ve been around for several years but I’d just never made it there until a few weeks ago. I went for an early lunch and took the time to chat with the staff about the kind of enchiladas I was looking for. Luckily, one of the staff is from El Paso so she knew exactly what kind of enchilada I was looking for and she recommended the Enchiladas Doña Clara, which are cheese and onion enchiladas in a guajillo sauce. When the dish made it to my table I was overjoyed. The enchiladas were made with a true red chili sauce, baked, and stuffed full of cheese and onions. Guajuillo chilies are from the same species as my beloved New Mexico chilies, Capsicum annuum, and this sauce almost took me back home to my family kitchen. Guajuillos are smoother and less tart than New Mexico chilies, so these enchiladas were more muted than some I’ve had, but that’s not a bad thing. There is a depth that I appreciate, and the balance with the cheese and onions is just lovely.

This doesn’t mean I won’t eat enchiladas like a crazy person when I go back to El Paso, because in the end there’s no substitute for the tastes of my childhood home, but now I have a source for fortifying my soul whenever I need it right here in my adult home.

5 Comments

  1. Uncanny. We just discovered ( and fell in love with ) Polvo’s 3 weeks ago. Amazing migas, too. FYI, they auto-gratuitied us twice, with only 4 ppl. And server failed to mention. We’ll still be back.
    don’t you just hate it when people actually put SEAFOOD in an enchilada? ugh. I can’t even read it on a menu, much less taste it …

  2. I’ve always thought that much of what we love to eat is determined by what we ate as children. Case in point: many food bloggers with palates I greatly respect love Get Sum Dim Sum, but I just can’t get excited about their food because it’s not what dim sum is “supposed” to be in my mind.

    At any rate, this is YOUR blog so you have every right to make some (really, all) of your posts all about you if you so choose! So glad you found enchiladas done right here in the ATX.

  3. Glad to hear that you discovered Polvos and found the comfort food you have been looking for! Did you like their salsa bar? I absolutely love the pickled carrots and roasted veggie salsa.

  4. Amanda Yates /

    You and I have the exact idea of the perfect enchilada! But then again, I grew up in New Mexico. What you just described is #4 on The Shed menu in Santa Fe. That is truly the perfect enchilada.

  5. My mouth is watering, I really enjoyed this post. I grew up in Houston eating Tex-Mex which is why I love it SO MUCH. We may not share the same views on enchiladas, but I can clearly see we share a passion for Tex-Mex done well. I haven’t been to Polvo’s yet and will seek it out next time my husband and I are looking for some tortilla wrapped goodness. ACTUALLY, you may have just helped me decide what to put on the dinner table tonight…I have an “almost engaged enchilada” recipe (named by my husband when we were dating) that would really hit the spot since I’m craving enchiladas after reading your post.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Green Chile Enchiladas : Fête & Feast - [...] have written over on Fete and Feast about how much I love enchiladas and my quest to find the ...