Chilaquiles in Southern Mexico
All roads converge on the zócalo in Oaxaca, the tree-shaded main plaza flanked by a Spanish cathedral and dotted with benches. As a child, my mother and I spent a few weeks there each year for ten years. The zócalo was our destination every single day. We’d stroll down the sloping pedestrian thoroughfare of Alcala towards the town square and browse the handicrafts, marvel at the daily firecracker show, or watch a demonstration.
We’d also get coffee, but always at the same café, which had the best cappuccinos. I liked pouring a cascade of sugar onto the spoon and dunking it into the frothy milk cap. I did it three times in a row while vendors stopped at the tables to sell weavings, carved wooden bookmarks, and chewing gum.
I recently returned to the southern Mexican city with my parents for the first time in 15 years. Of course, we headed straight to the zócalo on our first morning back in Oaxaca. That café on the southeast corner that had remained nameless in my memories was still there. I could see now that it was called Del Jardin.
I immediately recognized one of the waiters. After so many years, the lines on his chiseled face were deeper, the bags under his eyes slightly heavier, but it was indeed him. We sat down at an empty table overlooking the zócalo, and the plastic-laminated menus felt familiar in my hands. Various vendors passed our table to sell the customary items. I can’t say I recognized the street performer that day, but the lilting melody of his marimba provided a pleasant musical accompaniment to all the activity on the zócalo.
I knew exactly what I wanted. There were many old favorite foods I planned to eat in Oaxaca, but that morning I yearned only for a heaving plate of chilaquiles: the simple Mexican breakfast of day old tortillas drenched in tangy red or green sauce. It arrived piled high with sliced white onions, queso fresco, and sour cream.
Most Mexican dishes are highly regional. But chilaquiles are a national dish, according to Diana Kennedy’s classic book The Art of Mexican Cooking. There’s one exception: the green sauce version apparently hails from Michoacan, which lies more than 400 miles north of Oaxaca along the Pacific coast. Kennedy’s standard red chilaquiles recipe looks similar to what I ate in Oaxaca that day: corn tortillas dried overnight tossed in a red sauce of tomatoes, chiles, and garlic cloves, served with the requisite toppings. The sauce was tangy and rich with a subtle piquant kick. They were served just slightly warmer than room temperature.
The side of beans, though, were all Oaxaca. I was first introduced to those smoky, porky, and runny refried black beans as a kid. Black beans reign supreme in southern Mexico. The pinto bean is a rare sighting there.
Ok, I’ll admit it. I’ve eaten lots of chilaquiles as an adult, and Del Jardin doesn’t make the absolute best version. I’ve also had much better cappuccinos, and I no longer take them so sweet. But, over the course of that week in Oaxaca, we enjoyed many more meals, coffees, and a few beers at Del Jardin. We also got well-acquainted with the musical stylings of the marimba man, too.