On The Range is a weekly exploration of the history and lore of Texas menu items.
Many of us got our first taste of sopapillas by raising the flag.
Doesn't make sense? Well, back when dining out options were fewer and farther between, Panchos Mexican Buffet was one of the few places where you could get free sopapillas. After gorging on huge, overfilled plates of Tex-Mex basics, diners would raise the Mexican flag strategically located on each table, and our server would dutifully bring us more tea, tacos, or whatever we wanted-especially sopapillas.
Sopapillas (sometimes referred to as sopaipillas) feature prominently in several Latin cusines, most notably Chile, Uruguay, and Argentina. However, the variety that appears in most Tex-Mex establishments seems to have been developed in either Texas or New Mexico.
Chef and food writer Cynthia Derrick-Pineda suggests that they may have originated in the Albuquerque area some two hundred years ago. She also notes: "Both sopapillas and tortillas are used as 'sop' breads, either soaking up the liquids in a dish, or stuffing them with the foods so they can be eaten without the use of knife and fork. The recipe for both the tortilla and the sopapilla is virtually the same, the difference is in the cooking method."
Indeed, sopapillas are nothing more than basic fried dough, as indicated by Matt Martinez recipe in his book Mex-Tex. The ingredients listed are vegetable oil, sugar, cinnamon, and surprisingly, sourdough biscuit dough from a can. He happily adds, "Be prepared to make extra of these---most people will want more than one!" In her own recipe, Derrick-Pineda adds that "If your sopapillas are not puffing properly, the temperature of the oil may need to be increased or decreased."
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The Texas Legislature, whose members are noted for puffing themselves up on a regular basis--sorry--got something right for a change in 2003 when they passed a resolution declaring both sopapillas and strudel to be the Official State Pastries of Texas. In the text of HCR Number 92 (provided courtesy of Austin etymologist Barry Popik), the legislators note that the sopapilla "has been known to the Tigua (Native American tribe in the El Paso Area) of the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo as 'Indian fry bread' for well over a hundred years and is enjoyed by them on a variety of occasions."
Sadly, our esteemed congressmen let the designation expire in 2005.
Luckily, you can still get free sopapillas at Posados Mexican Restaurant. Granted, they are not the best example of this dish, but after a hearty meal of old-fashioned Tex-Mex, the little crusts of dough are quite a welcome sight.
Best of all, your waitperson will probably ask you near meal's end if you want them. No need to play with a flag.