Thanks to Stephen Starr and his trendy Center City cantina El Rey, I’ve had a rather intense hankering for Mexican fare the past few weeks. More specifically, I blame their queso fundido, a simple yet sumptuous combination of poblanos (chili peppers) and chorizo (sausage) swimming in fondue-style melted Chihuahua cheese (orgasm). Sadly, the only Mexican dishes in my own culinary repertoire are half-assed tacos—no lettuce, no pico de gallo, no sour cream; just beef, shredded “fiesta” cheese and taco seasoning—and Jose Ole’s frozen taquitos, the best microwaveable food you can ask for in 60 seconds.
So, needless to say, I was pretty pumped when the big cheese over at El Rey, Chef Dionicio Jimenez, agreed to teach me a more exciting alternative. Or any alternative, really. Even better, since the restaurant is known for very basic, traditional Mexican dishes—along with a few creative specialties—Dionicio had no qualms about sharing the exact recipes for two of the most popular items on his menu: chilaquiles and chicken enchiladas.
I showed up dressed like an official member of the El Rey wait staff in jeans and a flannel shirt—then stepped inside their kitchen, smelled all the seasoned meats and spicy sauces around me, and watched my hopes of blending in fly right out the window. I was more like a tourist seeing food for the first time. (Seriously, though, Glade should consider releasing a home fragrance line capturing the array of mouthwatering scents inside that kitchen. I’d never leave my house again.)
For readers who aren’t familiar with El Rey’s chilaquiles and chicken enchiladas, allow me to cut to the chase: They’re freakin’ awesome. For those who already know this, you’re probably thinking it’s weird that we would be cooking these dishes together, and you’re half right. As Dionicio notes, chilaquiles are typically served for breakfast or brunch. “My mother used to make it every Saturday and Sunday,” he reminisces. But since both items require an almost identical set of ingredients—particularly, salsa verde—they’re kinda like a two-for-one special. Unless you’re throwing a fiesta, making only one of these dishes at a time will leave you with a lot of remaining ingredients. So we make the chilaquiles for breakfast and the enchiladas for lunch or dinner. (Whip up a little extra salsa, buy some tortilla chips, and bam—you’ve got yourself a perfect late night snack, too. And Dionicio notes that, when cooking enchiladas at home, he’ll often add potatoes, corn and more veggies to the leftover stock to make chicken soup for later. So maybe they’re really more of a four-for-one special. )
Of course, having to prepare both dishes simultaneously was a tad overwhelming. And given that I only know about 20 Spanish words, I’m fairly certain a few things got lost in translation along the way. But breaking the recipes down step by step, I was surprised just how straightforward and versatile they were. So versatile, in fact that Dionicio even left several of the executive cooking decisions up to me: When given the option to fry or boil the tortilla chips, I opted for the fryer. When given the option of making either chicken or beef enchiladas, I chose chicken. When asked whether the salsa needed another jalapeño, I said, “Hells yeah, throw that bad boy in!”
Instead of barking a lot of specific instructions, Dionicio emphasized the various ways the dishes can be tailored: If you like a thicker salsa, use less water when blending the veggies. If you want the salsa to maintain its bright green color, let the tomatillos cool before blending them; otherwise, the mixture will immediately turn brown. If you want to spruce up the chilaquiles, add steak or chicken. He also made sure to note the different substitutions you can use: mozzarella instead of Chihuahua cheese, sour cream instead of Mexican crema, ricotta instead of queso fresco.
Personally, I think you’d be a damn fool to mess with the recipe—especially to replace the richer, creamier Chihuahua cheese with regular ol’ mozzarella. Even the egg topping on the chilaquiles, which I found off-putting in theory, wound up being the highlight of the dish. If I had to muster up any sort of complaint, it would be that the tortilla chips were already soggy by the time I got to dig into the chilaquiles. Actually, no, scratch that. My biggest complaint is that I lack the ability to unhinge my jaw.
Find this week’s enchilada and chilaquiles recipes, plus all the other dishes Nicole has learned from Philly chefs so far, online at forkingstupid.com.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014