Enchiladas are warm hugs, enveloped in tortillas and blanketed in sauce. Whether topped with hills of Cotija cheese, or a silky salsa verde, or handfuls of herbs, the dish is a shorthand for deliciousness. Even the name alone — enchiladas! — becomes a catalyst for anticipation: Comfort is in the vicinity. It’s on the way! Everything (or at least the next 15 minutes) could very well turn out fine.
The formula is crushingly simple, with opportunities for endless malleability: Fried tortillas are dipped in salsa, possibly garnished with crema and cheese and chopped onions, or served as is, or demolished anywhere in between. But while the dish’s origins are Mexican, stemming back to the time of the Aztecs, the specifics of your enchiladas vary wildly depending on where you’re partaking. The enchiladas you’ll find in McAllen, Texas (frequently sauced with chili gravy), could vary from Monterrey’s (where they’re often filled with pollo guisado) in Mexico. Mexico City’s enchiladas share DNA with their cousins in San Antonio and Brownsville and Galveston, but they each retain a specificity inherent to their locality. As Déborah Holtz and Juan Carlos Mena note in “Tacopedia,” “Every state of Mexico has its own version of enchiladas, though even then the official recipes are a source of frequent debate.”
One of the enchilada’s many delights is how the dish adapts to its surroundings, while adhering to the rough calculus of tortilla + heat + salsa: whoa. The dish is also, crucially, Tex-Mex, which as Sylvia Casares notes in “The Enchilada Queen Cookbook,” “is the oldest regional cooking style in the United States.” Whether they’re found in an after-hours bar along I-10 or in one of the many suburban-Bible-study-rendezvous-restaurants dotting West Texas, enchiladas are a cuisine staple in the way of chilaquiles and charro beans and migas scooped into flour tortillas — but our relationships to the dish remain deeply individual. Maybe you prefer a squeeze of lime over your enchiladas suizas. Or you’re into the minor galaxy of a hearty mole sauce across your tortillas. Or maybe you’ll take your enchiladas however they come, grateful for the alignment of stars that proffered such a holy offering.
Across Houston, from EaDo to Sugar Land to Montrose to the Woodlands to the Heights, enchiladas are a staple of absurdly long nights and too-early mornings. Many a boyfriend have told me they have found the perfect taqueria — or bar, or truck, or weekend pop-up hybrid — for enchiladas, and all of them have been correct because all enchiladas are perfect. I’ve eaten enchiladas on food-truck benches parked just outside leather bars. I’ve eaten enchiladas with bachelorette parties winding down in the foreground, as the betrothed and her companions wiped salsa from their knuckles. I’ve eaten enchiladas alongside friends to celebrate (completed projects, relocations, navigating yet another week on Earth), and to mourn (“Screw that guy, he didn’t deserve you”) and as a simple reminder of the manner in which we’re tied to the city itself. Because — much like Houston’s myriad offerings of pho bo and buttered naan and khao man gai — enchiladas are tightly woven into the fabric of the area’s sprawl.