There is a restaurant near our house called “El Azteco,” that has been in this town, in one incarnation or other, since I was in elementary school.
Suffice it to say that I have not been in elementary school since Richard Nixon was in the White House.
When I was in high school and college, “El Az” as it is called by natives, was located in a basement. Since we live in a large college town, the lines to get in on cheap Margarita night frequently snaked up the stairs and onto the street.
Nothing was fancy, the cups were red pebbled plastic, and the floor was always a little sticky. The radio was usually tuned to the All-Janis-and-Jimi-all-the-time station. It seemed very glamorous to me when I was in high school because smoking was still allowed, and there were people in the dark, tall wooden booths smoking clove cigarettes and drinking.
Several years ago, the restaurant moved to an above-ground location within 20 feet of the old spot, and gained a roof deck where I can now legally enjoy a Margarita (but no clove cigarettes) and a cheap meal on a warm summer evening. The cups are the same, the menu is the same, and the food is still good in the same unpretentious way it always was.
My favorite thing to eat there is the Topopo Salad, which are how nachos would be served in heaven. It’s served with chicken in the restaurant, but I always order mine “veggie.”
Here is my reconstruction of the recipe, which (I am told) is pretty darned close if not the real deal.
Topopo Salad…or very close to it
- 1 head iceberg lettuce, shredded or cut into small pieces
- 1/2 cup canola or other neutrally flavored oil
- 1/4 cup rice vinegar or distilled white vinegar
- 1/2 teaspoon sugar (I use Stevia)
- 16 0z. bottle homemade or purchased salsa, spicy as you like
- 8 ounces frozen peas, thawed
- 1 cup finely crumbled, white Mexican cheese (Queso Blanco) or Parmesan
- 2 ripe tomatoes, diced
- 1 bunch green onions, finely chopped
- 1—2 jalapenos, finely chopped (Note: how many jalapenos, and whether or not you seed them will determine how spicy your Topopo is. One seeded jalapeno will have a nice flavor with a bit of zing; 2 unseeded jalapenos will be noticeably hot. I like 1, unseeded).
- Good quality Tortilla chips
- 2 cups shredded cheddar or Monterey Jack cheese
- 2 cups guacamole (purchased or homemade)
- 2 cans vegetarian refried beans
“Topopo” means volcano, and as prepared at El Azteco, this is a huge salad for two people. You may, of course, choose to spread the ingredients over several plates.
- Mix lettuce, peas, white cheese, jalapenos, green onions and tomatoes in a large bowl. In a jar or bowl mix canola, rice vinegar and sugar to create a vinaigrette dressing. Add a small (!) amount of vinaigrette, no more than 1/4 cup to salad mixture. You are not really “dressing” this, just holding it together and adding a bit of flavor). Mix again to coat very lightly with vinaigrette. You may decide that you want to use more dressing next time, but you really don’t want it to be more than a hint of background flavor and a binder for the salad ingredients.
- Heat refried beans.
- On the bottom of a large plate, place a hearty layer of tortilla chips. Layer evenly over chips. (You can’t really “spread” them, so don’t try. Just drop dollops). Top with cheddar or jack cheese and run under the broiler to melt cheese. Top melted cheese with guacamole spread evenly, and top with a cup of the salsa.
- A true Topopo is presented with the salad on top of the nacho base in a pyramid. (You remember: the whole volcano thing). Begin piling your salad mixture on top of the nachos to cover completely, gradually adding less and less as you build upwards to form a pyramid. Serve with additional salsa on the side.
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