All hail the poor tortilla chip!
We hardly give it any thought; we just expect it to be there, in a basket, on the table, when we sit down at our favorite Tex-Mex joint. And we expect that basket to be endless. That is, until we’ve gorged ourselves on chips and salsa and the combo plate arrives and the basket, still half full, is abandoned.
And what of the chips then? After everyone’s had their hands in the basket there’s no recycling for those poor chips. They’re headed for the trash. We hope.
Make you wonder how many pounds, or tons, of tortilla chips get thrown out every day, doesn’t it?
And they aren’t even served at real Mexican restaurants, having only become a free staple with the rise of Tex-Mex eateries in the 1940s.
But where would we be without them? How else would we deliver warm salsa, gooey chili con queso and fresh guacamole to our mouths?
And what would we use as a base for nachos, lettuce leaves?
And while we do our queso crawls and salsa comparisons, does anyone ever compare tortilla chips?
No, and there’s a reason for that.
But, because I have white space to fill, I did in fact embark on a tortilla trip, comparing the chips at some favorite Tex-Mex eateries.
Just about everywhere I ate the chips where cut up corn tortillas, bought in mass and not made in house because, come on, how could any restaurant produce that many handmade tortillas to fill all those endless chip baskets?
And guess what? They’re pretty much all the same. Just about everywhere I ate the chips where cut up corn tortillas, bought in mass and not made in house because, come on, how could any restaurant produce that many handmade tortillas to fill all those endless chip baskets? They’d need a staff of 10 on the line just making tortillas.
Oh, and just about all restaurants fry them in vegetable oil.
El Real Tex-Mex Cafe actually tried to use coconut oil but people didn’t like it. Apparently we want our chips to taste the same wherever we go. But I do like the thickness of their chips, perfect for dipping. You don’t want a queso delivery system too thin — they’ll break — or too thick. The ratio between chip and dip needs to be just right.
Which is why some folks (and I’m not naming names here but you know who you are) are less enthusiastic about the chips at Maria Selma Restaurant. They really are thicker than most and they have air pockets that make them puffy. I like them. And I asked if they did anything different but they said no, just a corn tortilla, sliced and fried in veggie oil.
And other than the thickness, they taste just like the tortilla chips at Taco Milagro; only those come in cute little paper sacks that you snag by the counter. Remember to grab several sacks, as they don’t have waitstaff to refill them for you. But you can always go back for more when you go back to order another 'rita.
Never fear, the next time you’re hosting friends for a Texans game you can make your own. It’s not that hard, especially if you bake them instead of frying them.
At Cafe Adobe, which I recently rediscovered only to find out it’s going to be torn down next year — but they are looking for another Montrose location — they throw in a few blue corn tortilla chips. But you know what? You really can’t taste the difference, particularly when they’re covered in queso.
Just about the only place I’ve ever eaten tortilla chips that I thought tasted different, in a good way, was at the now-shuttered Vida. And those, I was told, were not even fried in-house but bought from Austin’s El Lago.
And speaking of pre-made chips, those store-bought ones never taste as good as the restaurant ones. Not even the ones that claim to taste the same.
But, never fear, the next time you’re hosting friends for a Texans game you can make your own. It’s not that hard, especially if you bake them instead of frying them. It’s less mess and maybe a little healthier.
Just buy some corn tortillas, I like to get the fresh ones from Central Market, use a chef’s knife or pizza cutter to slice them into eight triangles and put them on a cookie sheet. Sprinkle with EVOO, or vegetable oil, a little fresh limejuice, sea salt and maybe some chili powder. Bake in a preheated oven at 350 for about 15 minutes. Rotate the pan once during baking.
And they pretty much taste like any tortilla chip you’ll get in town. They key is eating them while they’re still warm. And having plenty of salsa, queso and guac to dip them in.