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Hilda's vs. La Loma: Chilaquiles cook-off

Chilaquiles
Chilaquiles

Not too long ago, Mexican food in the Twin Cities was inedible. Dig if you will the picture of those awful Purple Rain-era nachos: heaping mounds of stale tortilla-chip shards and detritus covered with mild Pace Picante sauce, fortified with browned hamburger and topped off with sour cream, grated orange cheddar cheese melted in the microwave, and slices of canned jalapeños lying among the muck.

No one knew any better back then; home cooks and bar kitchens churned out these piles of mediocre goo for years. But in our most lurid fantasies, we craved something better, something less packaged, something mas -- but not mass-produced. Fortunately, time and immigration and growth have brought restaurants serving authentic chilaquiles -- a melange of tortilla chips, salsa verde, eggs, meat, crema, and queso fresco -- to Minnesota. What took them so long?

See also: Quang vs. Jasmine Deli: Pho Fight

Hilda's chilaquiles
Hilda's chilaquiles
Amy Dahlin

The Venue: This week pits the chilaquiles of Hilda's in east St. Paul against those found at La Loma. Although these are traditionally eaten for breakfast, they are also tremendous as a snack or meal at any time of day.

The Weigh-in: Located on Payne Street on St. Paul's east side, Hilda's occupies the bright corner spot of Plaza Latina. A friendly greeting from the woman at the counter and some happily munching kids enraptured with Dora La Exploradora on the corner TV gave this light space a comfortable and homey feel, especially as more people of all ages filed in for their Saturday morning meal. La Loma, located in the Midtown Global Market, is also in a bright space overseen by friendly and helpful employees. But especially during the breakfast hours, the MGM feels cavernous and empty.

Round 1: The chips There seems to be two distinct ways to make chilaquiles: respect the crunch and integrity of the chip, or integrate the chips with the rest of the ingredients. Hilda's definitely respects the chip. There are a few perfect textures in food, and Hilda's tortilla chips -- just beginning to soften beneath a homemade salsa verde yet still crunchy and crackling -- is one of them. La Loma integrates their chips into the salsa and toppings, and while the first few bites have some firmness, the dish quickly assumes a kind of casserole-like texture.

 

Cecina
Cecina

Round 2 - The meat Both places offer many options for meat. Hilda's offers cecina, a kind of salty steak that traditionally resembles prosciutto. Theirs is sliced a bit thicker and cooked, but has a pleasing, savory taste. La Loma's chopped steak is flavorful and a bit easier to distribute throughout the dish as a whole.

La Loma's chilaquiles
La Loma's chilaquiles
Amy Dahlin

Round 3 - The toppings We love chilaquiles for breakfast, especially topped with a couple of eggs over easy. Hilda's runny yolks blend perfectly with the vinegar bite and heat of the salsa verde. The crema and queso fresco come in just the right amount to pull it all together. La Loma does not offer an option with eggs; it comes with a side of rice, salsa verde (with a bit more kick than Hilda's), crema, and cheese.

The winner is .... Hilda's. This dish is definitely worth the trip. Crunchy, gooey, and spicy, those chilaquiles have enough kick to jumpstart a Saturday morning after a late night out; enough crunch to satisfy those of us who love texture; and enough soul to erase our lingering memories of spiceless, wretched Mexican-Minnesotan fiestas.

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