You may never feel as free as in the moments before you ask for chilaquiles. The fried corn tortilla dish, commonly eaten at breakfast in Mexico, can be ordered with runny eggs, dried and stewed meats, an array of salsas, raw and pickled garnishes, crema, and crumbly cheese. In theory, it’s a meal of abundant choice.
In practice, the options have been more limited in Manhattan. Chilaquiles usually appear on the menus of Mexican restaurants in one or two preparations. At La Chilaquería, the small Mexican cafe that Alfonso Amador and Susana Labrada opened earlier this month at 139 W. 28th Street, between Sixth and Seventh avenues, there are around two dozen. More are on the way.
“There isn’t anything like this in Manhattan,” according to Amador, and he’s right. It’s been two weeks, but the cafe already has a small following of office workers and homesick Mexicanos, who shout orders across the counter in a mix of Spanish and English. “This is for Mexicans who miss these places back home and people who are trying them for the first time,” he says.
The small cafe loads its fried tortillas into deep compostable bowls, then heaps on refried beans, cheese, and crema. An array of meats and other proteins come next, including fried eggs, chorizo, carne cecina (beef that’s salted and then dried), chicharron prensado (pressed pork rind), and avocado sliced thin and perched on top like a little crown ($18). Additional meats can be added on for a few dollars more.
The plot thickens with the restaurant’s salsas, which come in shades of red, green, and brown. There’s the more common salsa roja, which needs no introduction, and the sweeter salsa verde, watery and green from its blend of tomatillo and serrano, jalapeno, and poblano peppers. The salsa de almendras, a brown sauce made by toasting sesame seeds and almonds in butter, almost resembles a good chili: It’s thickened with a combination of fried arbol, cascabel, morita, and costeño amarillo chiles.
Meats and salsas considered, there are at least 20 different ways to order these bowls of fried corn tortillas. That’s not counting the cafe’s torta de chilaquiles, a sandwich that’s popular in Tijuana and Mexico City, or its chilaquiles burrito, an off-menu special stuffed with chips, salsa, and beans. The carb-on-carb gut busters are best shared among friends, Amador says, or otherwise used to induce a siesta.
The focus is on chilaquiles for now, but Amador and Labrada have bigger plans that include moles, tlayudas, and more. If even half of what they say comes true, La Chilaquería would become one of the neighborhood’s best spokespeople for regional Mexican cuisine. For now, round out a meal with cafe de olla, seasoned with cinnamon and piloncillo (a type of unrefined cane sugar), and lattes sweetened with condensed milk.
There are around a dozen indoor seats, half of which are found at a railing with bar stools, and two tables on the sidewalk out front. La Chilaquería is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.