On The Range: Chicken Tortilla Soup

Mexican cooks reuse leftovers like nobody's business.

Consider the plight of the frugal family in days of yore, north or south of the border. The basics of life--shelter and food--are not certainties. Since the beginning of farming, rural families learned not to toss any part of a plant or animal that could make a nice meal with just a little ingenuity. Thus dishes such as lengua (beef tongue) or barbacoa de cabeza (slow-cooked cow's head) were born.

Even low-cost items like tortillas are part of this waste-not ethos.

Soup is, of course, the perfect food for rainy or cold days, and at some point in Mexican history, some cooks hit on the idea of adding crispy strips of leftover tortillas to their broth, thereby serving a role similar to a good crusty loaf of French or croutons at mealtime.

Rick Bayless, James Beard Award-winning chef and author of Mexico One Plate at a Time, waxes positively rhapsodic over the joys of this humble dish:

"My favorite tortilla soup dances salsa in the bowl. While swaying with deep, sweet tones, it surprises with colorful flourishes. It gently slides its hand around your waist, then does an unexpected turn with the muscle of herby epazote (an herb similar to coriander which grows wild all over North America). It tickles you with tangy fresh lime, then nudges you gently with fresh cheese and creamy avocado. And then comes the whirlwind of turns--crumbled bits of toasted black-red pasilla chile exploding with delectable energy, revealing just how thrilling life can be."

Same could probably be said of a roller coaster. Or even dancing the salsa.

Diana Kennedy also employs pasilla chiles and epazote in her sopa de tortilla recipe found in her groundbreaking book The Cuisines of Mexico, noting that this dish is a staple of Central Mexico. As with Bayless, she employs chicken broth but not actual chicken meat in her recipe. Robb Walsh's version in The Tex-Mex Cookbook calls for Mexican oregano, carrots, red potatoes, one whole chicken, and serranos in place of pasillas. As with all foods, the ingredients employed are limited only by the chef's imagination.

I first encountered chicken tortilla soup in Ixtapa, Mexico many years ago, but these days, it can be found on the menu of most Mexican restaurants, Tex-Mex or otherwise. It has actually become so pervasive that it can often be found in non-Mex establishments. At the Stoneleigh P Restaurant, located across the street from the famous hotel that once housed Elvis and Margo Jones, burgers and beer are the main culinary draws, but diners shouldn't be too quick to ignore the Mexican soup.

The former-pharmacy's version of chicken tortilla soup works on the build-your-own model: Diners are presented a plate of steaming, meat-filled broth, with avocado slices, spicy pico de gallo, and tortilla strips served on the side. The resulting dish can be made equally appealing to timid palates as well as lovers of heat by merely adding as much pico as you desire.

You are only limited by your imagination and ingenuity.

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