Hilda's vs. La Loma: Chilaquiles cook-off
Not too long ago, Mexican food in the Twin Cities was inedible. Dig if you will the picture of those awful Purple Rain-era nachos: heaping mounds of stale tortilla-chip shards and detritus covered with mild Pace Picante sauce, fortified with browned hamburger and topped off with sour cream, grated orange cheddar cheese melted in the microwave, and slices of canned jalapeños lying among the muck.
No one knew any better back then; home cooks and bar kitchens churned out these piles of mediocre goo for years. But in our most lurid fantasies, we craved something better, something less packaged, something mas -- but not mass-produced. Fortunately, time and immigration and growth have brought restaurants serving authentic chilaquiles -- a melange of tortilla chips, salsa verde, eggs, meat, crema, and queso fresco -- to Minnesota. What took them so long?
The Venue: This week pits the chilaquiles of Hilda's in east St. Paul against those found at La Loma. Although these are traditionally eaten for breakfast, they are also tremendous as a snack or meal at any time of day.
The Weigh-in: Located on Payne Street on St. Paul's east side, Hilda's occupies the bright corner spot of Plaza Latina. A friendly greeting from the woman at the counter and some happily munching kids enraptured with Dora La Exploradora on the corner TV gave this light space a comfortable and homey feel, especially as more people of all ages filed in for their Saturday morning meal. La Loma, located in the Midtown Global Market, is also in a bright space overseen by friendly and helpful employees. But especially during the breakfast hours, the MGM feels cavernous and empty.
Round 1: The chips
There seems to be two distinct ways to make chilaquiles: respect the crunch and integrity of the chip, or integrate the chips with the rest of the ingredients. Hilda's definitely respects the chip. There are a few perfect textures in food, and Hilda's tortilla chips -- just beginning to soften beneath a homemade salsa verde yet still crunchy and crackling -- is one of them. La Loma integrates their chips into the salsa and toppings, and while the first few bites have some firmness, the dish quickly assumes a kind of casserole-like texture.