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The Whole Enchilada

Traditional or newfangled – however you like your enchiladas, you'll find the best ones in Texas. All hail the mighty enchilada!
Written by Robb Walsh. Photographs by Robert Hart.

The owners of Cyclone Anaya’s Mexican Kitchen recently announced that they are taking their “chef-driven Mexican-inspired cuisine” to the Washington, D.C., area. The original Cyclone Anaya’s was a rough-and-tumble chili joint in Houston owned by a former professional wrestler. Today, the signature dish at the second generation of the Cyclone Anaya’s chain is a plate of lobster enchiladas. Shrimp enchiladas, spinach enchiladas, and crawfish enchiladas are also easy to find these days. But they all leave me dreaming about the enchiladas of the good old days.

Surrounded by fountains, foliage and Mexican pottery, diners at Joe T. Garcia’s— a Fort Worth institution since 1935—enjoy a side dish of history with their Tex-Mex. (Photo by Robert Hart)Back when I was a student at UT Austin, I thought the chicken mole enchiladas at El Azteca were pretty fancy. I also thought I was adventurous when I got the spicy Green Enchiladas at the longtime Austin institution Matt’s El Rancho, which were (and still are) stuffed with chicken and topped with tomatillo-and-serrano sauce.

Strangely, although I loved cheese enchiladas in those days, I seldom ordered them at Tex-Mex restaurants. Cheese enchiladas seemed to taste better at drugstore lunch counters, truck stops, and bowling alleys. The bubbly, yellow-cheese enchiladas in chili gravy at the Dart Bowl on Grover Avenue in Austin can’t possibly be as good as I remember them—comfortingly mellow and toasty crisp on the edges. I suspect that the surreal experience of dining in a vintage bowling alley only multiplied the Dart Bowl enchiladas’ deliciousness, though friends tell me they’re still great.

When I wrote the Tex-Mex Cookbook some years ago, I called cheese enchiladas in chili gravy the quintessential Tex-Mex dish, and I provided lots of recipes for variations. But I got an earful about my omissions from a higher authority on the subject.

Legendary Fort Worth-based sports writer and author Dan Jenkins knows a lot about Tex-Mex. While he was working for Sports Illustrated in New York, he even persuaded his wife to open a Tex-Mex restaurant there.

“The quintessential Tex-Mex dish isn’t cheese enchiladas in chili gravy,” Jenkins lectured. Meatless chili gravy was a cost-cutting shortcut that came along in the fast-food era, he said. The cheese enchiladas that Jenkins first devoured in the 1950s at The Mexican Inn Cafe in downtown Fort Worth were slathered with chili con carne. “They were stunning, absolutely orgasmic,” he told me. Of course, I wanted to try these mythic enchiladas as soon as possible, so I asked him where to get some today.

Since the original location of The Mexican Inn Cafe closed in 2005, Jenkins sent me to another spot, the Original Mexican Eats Cafe on Camp Bowie Boulevard. This place opened in 1926, and the cheese enchilada recipe hasn’t changed. When I took a bite, I experienced a rush of memories. This is indeed what cheese enchiladas used to taste like, back when they were covered in peppery, cumin-scented Texas red sauce.

Perhaps the most famous item on the Original’s menu is the Roosevelt Special—the plate that FDR ordered when he visited Fort Worth in the 1930s. It includes a chalupa, a taco, and two cheese enchiladas covered with chili con carne and topped with a fried egg. If you’ve never had the Roosevelt Special at the Original in Fort Worth, go try a bite of history.

But the Fort Worth cheese enchiladas of the 1920s and 1930s still aren’t the oldest style in Texas. To sample the original Texas cheese enchiladas, you have to head out west.

A New Mexico transplant named Tula Borunda Gutierrez opened a restaurant on the train tracks in Marfa in 1886. She served steaks, eggs, and beans to hungry railroad workers. Once a week, she also made cheese enchiladas. Her descendants continued the tradition at the Old Borunda Cafe until the café closed in the 1990s.

The enchiladas at the Old Borunda were stacked, not rolled. Each layer of tortillas was topped with cheese and onions and covered with a red chile sauce. Then the whole stack was baked and topped with a fried egg.

Old-fashioned stacked red-chile enchiladas can still be found on Friday nights at Borunda’s Bar & Grill in Marfa. They are also available at Cueva de Oso in Balmorhea and at the Leal’s locations in Muleshoe, Plainview, Amarillo, and Clovis, New Mexico. New Mexicans seem to think that they invented the fabulous combination of stacked enchiladas and red chile sauce, but since Texas once claimed part of New Mexico, the lines are a little blurry.

I have no problem with lobster, shrimp, or spinach enchiladas, but none of them measures up to the amazing enchiladas of my memories. Not that my memory is very trustworthy. As that French guy Marcel Proust once wrote: “Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.”

 

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