Have I told you that chilaquiles are my favorite Mexican breakfast food? Actually, they are one of my favorite meals EVER and while I have a couple of chilaquiles recipes on this site (here and here), I realized recently that my recipe collection was lacking a red version?. In my quest to create a tomato-based version of my roasted salsa verde, I have finally found a red salsa worthy of topping one of my favorite meals. Chilaquiles with charred salsa roja is filling, totally customizable, and the perfect meal any time of day!
What are chilaquiles?
If you are unfamiliar with chilaquiles (say it like chee-lah-KEY-lays), be prepared to meet your new favorite breakfast (or any time) dish. Basically, chilaquiles are fried corn tortilla wedges, topped with warm salsa, Mexican cream, diced or sliced onions, and cheese. The sauce is usually of the red or green variety. This is a common breakfast served throughout Mexico with many regional variations.
Origin and Evolution of Chilaquiles
The origin of the word chilaquiles is unclear. Ricardo Muñoz Zurita, author of Larousse Diccionario Enciclopédico de la Gastronomía Mexicana, provides 3 possible theories.
The first theory is that the word comes from the náhautl words chilli (chile pepper) and quilitl (edible herb). Another possible origin, also from the náhautl language is chilli and aquilli (submerged in) which would literally translate to “submerged in chile”. The last theory is that the combination of náhuatl words chilli, atl (water), and quilitl provide the origin of the word chilaquiles.
Interestingly, this dish was originally a humble meal. In order to avoid wasting day-old or stale tortillas, the tortillas would be cut, fried, and then topped with salsa. These days, chilaquiles can be quite elaborate and far evolved from these humble origins.
The evolution of chilaquiles can be seen in the offerings of this dish throughout restaurants and eateries in Mexico. Oftentimes, chilaquiles can be ordered with steak, chicken, or fried eggs. Beans are generally served on the side along with teleras, a common Mexican bread, just in case you need to sop up any leftover salsa.
If you need your chilaquiles on the go (or you want to go into a carb coma), look no further than the torta de chilaquiles. This is literally a chilaquiles sandwich: a telera filled with chilaquiles.
It’s all in the salsa
The salsa is what will make or break any chilaquiles dish. Heck, salsa is crucial to many Mexican dishes. And while there are other important factors in the making of perfect chilaquiles that I will cover below, the salsa is absolutely critical.
But what makes this salsa so good, in my humble opinion, is the fact that the tomatoes, onions, peppers, and garlic char on the stove-top, bringing depth to the final salsa. There is a delicate balance between the sweetness of the onion and tomatoes and the bitterness of the blackened skin provided by the charring process. I am not advocating for burning any ingredients here. The fine line between burnt and charred is explored here by Bon Appetit author Alex Delany.
The salsa used for these chilaquiles have a total of 5 ingredients, which is another reason that I love this salsa. Simplicity in ingredients and techniques. There is no need for complicated cooking methods to produce stellar salsa.
Using my charred salsa roja as the inspiration for this recipe, I am hoping these chilaquiles might be more accessible for those who can’t get the tomatillos used as the base of the salsa in my other chilaquiles. But, to that point, if you want a green sauce, simply substitute the tomatoes for tomatillos, as in my chilaquiles with roasted salsa verde. If you don’t like habaneros or would like milder salsa, you can use serranos or jalapeños instead. You could even make this salsa with no chile peppers at all if you wish. The same charring method can be used with any of the substitutions mentioned here.
How to make the perfect chilaquiles
I am a bit biased on what makes the perfect chilaquiles. But having experienced many variations on chilaquiles since living in Mexico, I feel justified in expressing my opinions here. But, what may be perfect for me, may not be perfect for you. I present options and variations below so that you can experiment and find your own “perfect”.
Cut and fry your own tortilla chips
Store-bought corn tortilla chips vary in thickness and saltiness. By hand cutting and frying your own corn tortillas, you completely control the process. This ensures that you won’t end up with an overly salty, soggy mush of chilaquiles.
As mentioned above, stale tortillas were the norm for making chilaquiles. Some Mexican cooks cut the tortilla wedges and leave them out to dry the night before making chilaquiles. This method uses less oil in the frying process because the tortillas are drier at the start of the frying process. The point here is that the freshness of the tortilla is not imperative. Stale is actually better in this case, so this is the perfect dish to use up any leftover corn tortillas.
I don’t really advocate for any shortcuts here. Hand frying is the way to go. The optional step is leaving the cut corn tortillas out overnight to dry out a bit prior to frying the next morning.
Putting together the final dish
The norm here in Mexico is to add the fried corn tortilla chips to the warmed salsa, just a few minutes before serving. This allows the chips to soften a bit and soak up some salsa. The sauce and chips are then scooped out onto plates for serving.
I like my chilaquiles with a bit of a crunch, and not overly soft. So my preference is to plate the chips, top with the salsa and other ingredients.
Decide what texture you prefer and adjust your final plating methods accordingly.
Customize the toppings
Have you ever had to serve breakfast for a group of people with varying dietary restrictions? Chilaquiles are the perfect solution because the toppings are totally customizable. Gluten-free? No problem! As long as you are using a gluten-free tortilla, you should be good to go! Lactose intolerant, just remove the cheese and cream. Vegans in your crowd? Chips, salsa, black beans, plant-based cheese, and avocado make for a vegan-friendly version.
I live with a super carnivore who loves his chilaquiles topped with grilled steak. My son and I both prefer ours with a fried egg on top. My other son doesn’t like salsa (even the mild kind). No problem…his chilaquiles are just corn chips, beans, and steak or chicken.
This is the beauty of chilaquiles. When you make these at home you can customize the toppings to whatever suits your taste!
Give these chilaquiles with charred salsa roja a try and let me know how you like them in the comments!
Chilaquiles with Charred Salsa Roja
- 12 corn tortilla chips about 6 inches in diameter
- 1/2 cup vegetable oil I use safflower
- 2 1/4 pounds Roma tomatoes ~1040g or 8-9 medium to large tomatoes
- 8 ounces white onion, in large chunks ~235g
- 2 large cloves of garlic or 4 small
- 2-4 habaneros to taste
- Salt to taste
- Choice of toppings
- Cut tortillas into wedges
- Heat oil in a large non-stick skillet over medium-high heat, about 2 minutes
- Working in small batches, add tortilla wedges to oil and fry until they begin to turn golden, about 1-2 minutes per batch. Ensure that the tortillas are in a single layer in the frying pan and are not overlapping.
- Remove to a paper towel-lined plate and repeat until all tortillas are fried
- Meanwhile, heat a skillet or griddle over medium-high heat
- Once the pan is hot, add tomatoes, onions, garlic, and peppers to the dry skillet. The vegetables should be whole, with the exception of the onion
- Let the vegetables cook until the skins begin to char and blacken. Turn occasionally to allow to blacken evenly, about 8-10 minutes for the garlic and peppers and about 15-20 minutes for the tomatoes and onions.
- Once the vegetables are cooked, place in a blender, taking care to remove the chile stem at this point.
- Add salt to the salsa as desired
- Blend until mostly smooth and no large chunks of vegetables remain (about 1 minute). Add more salt if necessary.
- If the salsa is too thick, you could add a small amount of broth or water to achieve the desired consistency.
- Divide chips evenly among 4 plates and top with equal amounts of salsa
- Add toppings of choice (see notes)
Optional: tortillas can be cut into wedges the night before and left to dry out on trays before frying. This helps to reduce the amount of oil needed to fry the tortillas and produces a crispier chip.
Optional toppings: Sour cream, queso fresco, avocado, sliced onions, fried egg, shredded chicken, cecina, black beans, sliced flank steak
Cook times do not include the time required to prepare additional toppings
This recipe uses 2x my charred salsa roja recipe or about 5 cups total