In a city full of flavors from across Latin America, chilaquiles stand out on a menu like a waving red, white and green tricolor.
The traditional Mexican breakfast dish starts as a base of corn tortillas, which are typically sauteed with salsa and topped with swirling lines of crema and crumbles of queso fresco. A side of eggs is a must. Whatever else a chef chooses to add is indicative of his or her regional allegiance.
Alfredo Solis would tell you chilaquiles taste like home; for the 16-year veteran of the Washington restaurant scene, that’s Mexico City. Before Solis was running kitchens for Passion Food Hospitality -- he's worked at Ceiba, Acadiana, District Commons and Fuego Cocina y Tequileria, among others -- or opening restaurants of his own, he was just another kid gobbling down his mother’s chilaquiles.
At El Sol in Logan Circle — which Solis opened in 2015 with his sister, Jessica, a year after opening the original location in Petworth — the dish ($12.15) is served swimming in a fresh salsa verde made of tomatillos, onions, enough serrano pepper to make you sweat and, crucially, epazote, a Mexican herb commonly added to beans as an anti-gas agent that adds a flavor somewhere between cilantro and mint.
The result is a tangy, semi-sour sauce balanced by rich egg yolks, generous circles of crema and a blend of melted cheese and queso fresco. It comes with a side of bread for sopping. For an extra dollar, you can add a side of steak, but Solis prefers the dish without animal protein. Back in Mexico, he said, his family did not have a lot of money for meat.
“We cook like how we cook in Mexico. We use almost the same ingredients,” Solis said. “Epazote, that’s what makes a difference. Everywhere you go, you eat the chilaquiles, but they don’t have that touch.”
At Taqueria Habanero on 14th Street NW in Petworth, chef and owner Dio Montero makes Puebla-style chilaquiles ($11) that mirror the best parts of Solis’s version. The salsa verde lacks the epazote and the spice you’ll find at El Sol, but the flavor is equally delicious.
Making the dish is an exercise in balance, Montero said. You want the toppings to soften some of the tortillas while leaving others crunchy and noisy when bit into.
“In Mexico that dish is treated as a brunch. It’s usually given to people after they drink a lot,” Montero said with the help of his translator and daughter, Yicela, a 20-year-old Towson University student who moonlights for the family as a server. Another of Montero’s daughters, Gabriela, 18, said her father would make the dish at home as “a little snack,” whipping up a fresh batch of green sauce between meals.
Montero's wife is Salvadoran, so he's taken it upon himself to prepare the dish, which he says reminds him of his mother, for his daughters as well as any homesick compatriots who walk through the door.
At Taqueria El Mexicano in Hyattsville, the chilaquiles verdes ($12.50) assume a different identity despite common Puebla heritage. With a salsa muted by stewed chicken and broth, the dish resembles a Mexican casserole; a garlicky side of yellow rice and a thick spoonful of refried beans ensure you won't leave hungry.
In downtown Washington, the chilaquiles are served with yet another twist. At Oyamel, chilaquiles ($10) are served at brunch with totopos, crunchy squares twice as thick as tortilla chips, topped with salsa ranchera and house-made chorizo. Added flourishes include verdant dots of epazote oil made from locally sourced herbs; slightly tart house-made crema; melted Chihuahua cheese; and a fried egg with a beautifully bronzed exterior.
“This style is definitely going to root more toward Oaxaca, Puebla, Mexico City style,” said Oyamel chef Colin King, who learned the ins and outs of Mexican cuisine in his current post at the Jose Andres restaurant. “Things are a little more rich. It’s going to be a little more different than you see in the north. Vastly different than Yucatan.”
Regardless of regional provenance, chilaquiles are family food: easy, fast and satisfying to prepare and consume.
When Solis of El Sol moved his mother out of Mexico and into the D.C. area, they had the opportunity to share meals again. The roles reversed, and Solis began making chilaquiles for the woman who taught him what they were.
“It’s hard to believe it,” he said, “but she likes mine better.”
Where to order chilaquiles:
Taqueria Habanero, 3710 14th St. NW. 202-722-7700.
Taqueria El Mexicano, 7811 Riggs Rd., Hyattsville. 301-434-0104.