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The whole enchilada: Recipes as good as you'll get at your favorite Mexican restaurant
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The whole enchilada: Recipes as good as you'll get at your favorite Mexican restaurant

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Some people, when they go to Italian restaurants, always order spaghetti carbonara. Some, when they go to Chinese restaurants, inevitably get chicken with black bean sauce.

When I go to a Mexican restaurant, you can be sure I’ll order enchiladas. Always enchiladas.

Enchiladas, to me, encapsulate the best qualities of Mexican cooking. They can be made satisfactorily with an assortment of meats or cheeses; the fillings can be spiced or left plain; and they can be topped with a diversity of sauces — sometimes, colorfully, at the same time.

These days, enchiladas can be easy to make. Just buy a package of corn tortillas, wrap them around some precooked chicken or shredded cheese (a little more work is needed for beef or pork), splash a can of enchilada sauce on top and bake until done.

That’s not how I make mine. And when you get down to it, that’s not how your favorite Mexican restaurant makes theirs.

Homemade enchiladas taste better than that. You can make your own tortillas, you can make your own meat and you can especially make your own sauce, and the result will be far superior to anything involving a can. I didn't make my own tortillas this time — they're easy, but sometimes you just don't feel like making tortillas — and they were still amazing.

I started with enchiladas Suizas, which is what I inevitably order if it is on the menu. Enchiladas Suizas are chicken enchiladas with a green sauce — a salsa verde — that derives a delightful mild tang from its main ingredient, tomatillos.

They were invented in Mexico City. The name, Swiss enchiladas, comes from the fact that the other main ingredients are cream and cheese.

I cooked my chicken very simply, with just salt and pepper; you could also use rotisserie chicken or other prepackaged chicken. All the chicken needs to do is complement the sauce.

Admittedly, the sauce takes a little time and effort to make; the best foods often do. But I would say results are unquestionably worth it.

I made my standard, go-to green sauce. First, you simmer together tomatillos and a couple of aromatics (onion, garlic), and a serrano pepper or two or three, depending on your enjoyment of heat. No pepper at all is fine, too, if you like it extra mild.

After you blend these ingredients together with their simmering liquid and some sprigs of cilantro, there is still another step to go: You fry the mixture in oil. It isn’t as weird or as fattening as it sounds; simmering the sauce with a little hot oil adds an almost magical level of depth to the flavor.

Baked all together with corn tortillas, queso fresco (a mild Mexican cheese) and crema, these enchiladas were bright and fresh and stunningly delicious.

But the beef enchiladas with a red sauce, to my surprise, were every bit as good, and maybe better.

I began by cooking ground beef with a familiar combination of spices — chili powder, cumin, onion powder, garlic powder and oregano. In effect, I began with the same seasoned beef I would use in a taco.

Then I made a red enchilada sauce, which was so flavorful that I found myself eating it by the spoonful as I was cooking it. The secret is to keep the tomato a minor component; it should act as a complement to the chili spice and the chile peppers.

It’s a fair amount of work. You begin by rehydrating dried chiles, which are blended until smooth. Then you make a roux, add the blended chile liquid and simmer it together with a smear of tomato paste and a handful of helpful spices.

It is a bold sauce, complexly layered, and it goes almost bizarrely well with the spiced beef, corn tortilla and a healthy sprinkling of cheddar cheese. It is also excellent with chicken, pork and cheese enchiladas.

I am not kidding. I am not exaggerating. These are as good as any enchiladas you can get at a restaurant.

Trust me on this. I've had a lot of enchiladas.

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