Until an embarrassingly advanced age, I could not have told you what an enchilada was exactly. Thanks to the wildly popular local hippie-Tex Mex take-out place down the street from my childhood home, I knew it as a shifty pile of meat and various Mexican ingredients, possibly including rice and vegetables, all covered in gooey melted cheese, emphasis on the cheese. It came in a rounded metal tin and despite appearing to be leftovers covered in cheese, or perhaps because of it, was very tasty.
As a young college student exploring the South Philadelphia neighborhood known as the Italian Market, now heavily populated by Mexican establishments, I happened upon the culinary discovery my adolescent self might have called “soft taco tubes in salsa”, also known as authentic Mexican enchiladas.
Enchiladas, made the right way, are soft corn tortillas wrapped around a key ingredient, often braised chicken, pork or beef, and topped with homemade tomatillo or tomato salsa. If made with flour tortillas, tomato salsa, and gooey cheese, they’re called enchiladas suizas, Swiss enchiladas. When made with the smoky, chocolate and chili mole sauce, they’re known as enmoladas, my personal favorite.
All enchiladas are then topped off with Mexican cream and a dusting of crumbled cotija cheese. In a pinch, American sour cream and parmesan or feta can be substituted.
If you imagine the enchilada as an ice cream sundae, the crumbled cheese is the cherry on top. It’s a light dusting, a garnish. On the other hand, if the Tex-Mex enchilada were a sundae, it would be half cherries.
All this talk of dessert is distracting from eureka moment I had during my first visit to that place that people from New Mexico must call “Old Mexico”, the enchilada’s native home:
In Mexico City I learned that while tacos are the de facto late-night delivery device for meat, cilantro, and onions, the enchilada is a 24-hour phenomenon! That’s right, enchiladas are a full-on breakfast food. They can be stuffed not only with meat, but also with beans, cheese, or even scrambled eggs!
Eggs in an enchilada. This is not the Taco Bell breakfast menu. It’s not a breakfast burrito, another American invention. This is a legitimate round-the-clock Mexican dish, a plate you can order three times in the same day and not feel out of place.