A lot has changed at El Chilaquil, but the house special is as tender as ever
Close your eyes for a couple of years and a lot happens. In the case of El Chilaquil, a once-and-favorite dive on West Commerce, the entire environment can change. Not long ago, El Chilaquil fit the very definition of "hole in the wall," and could easily have been on the other side of the Rio Bravo. Its menu focused on carnitas, morcon, and other uncommon comestibles; the lingua franca was español; the prices were rock-bottom. Prices remain low, and the language of choice is still Spanish, but there have been other transformations.
The most apparent changes have happened to the restaurant itself. El Chilaquil must be at least three times as large as its original square footage, and, as just one indication of its prosperity, where there were once Aztec-warrior-and-maiden calendars on the walls, now there are huge paintings in more or less the same style, but still an improvement.
The menu has also transformed. Although there were a few other options, the previous plan of attack was usually to order a pound or so of carnitas and simply settle back to some of the best eating around. A stack of fragrant corn tortillas, bowls of frijoles a la charra, and a few salsas were all the accompaniments needed - or offered. The new-and-improved menu is encyclopedic in contrast.
But before fallen-away customers panic, let me assure you that one can still simply order by the pound, and the carnitas are every bit as good as I remembered them. Tender, almost fragrant, suffused with just enough fat to satisfy those primal cravings, these pieces of slowly cooked pork (they can be baked, often with milk and orange juice, or deep-fried in large chunks, frequently in a 40-gallon drum) are nectar of the gods, and you will be excused for not straying from Mount Olympus, or the Pyramid of the Sun as the case may be. Yet, there is much more on the expanded menu to entice the adventurous eater, and one good way to taste unfamiliar foods with minimal investment is to tackle the tacos.
We started with the carnitas, then moved right to morcon, a hard-to-identify cut that comes from the stomach of a pig and is characterized by mild taste and a surprisingly appealing springy texture. It's especially good with one of the two table sauces: the almost fruity tasting red and only slightly less lethal green. The cabrito tacos were a disappointment, largely because there was little expected meat and more internal organs - liver and/or heart, for example. With the machitos, internal organs are what one expects: wrapped in parchment-like intestine and membrane from the meat of a goat, then grilled. Normally they are flavored with garlic, oregano, and cumin; I'd like to taste a little more of this in El Chilaquil's rendition, but I still recommend you try them. It's an easy way to get past the "variety meats" hurdle.
Alas, there being no sesos dorados (sautéed brains), we moved on to the barbacoa, which EC calls simply cabeza. Many of us may have been put off by the greasiness of this classic, pit-cooked cow's head (it's usually steamed these days), but though it was rich and oily, the cabeza was also almost delicate in flavor. I recommend this one, too, as a training-wheels taco. (Lemon is a good grease cutter, by the way.) The tacos al pastor are immediately appealing, with the well-seasoned pork having an adobo-like flavor of chile and orange. (There were a few bits of internal organ as well, but they were well-disguised.)
A single gordita is also fairly substantial, especially if you order the chicharron model, stuffed with stewed pork rind (melt-in-the-mouth good), lettuce, and grated yellow cheese. El Chilaquil also offers huaraches, a classic masa-based market food in the elongated form of a sandal, along with tortas and a selection of lunch and dinner plates. There is menudo on the weekends, and, now every day, the hard-to-find bírria, estilo D.F.
I don't know how the Distrito Federal style differs from, say, estilo Durango, but the result is a rich, chile-flavored broth afloat with large and annoyingly bony, but very flavorful, pieces of spiny goat. There's a kind of distinct, but subdued, flavor of cabrito (or more mature critter) throughout, making the dish just challenging enough to allow the wary to claim their culinary courage merit badges. In the event this is too challenging, just stick to carnitas; they'll never be on the menu at Taco Bell. •