As great as modern dining hall food can be, it does grow tiresome after a while, which I learned during my first year at UCSB. Even at buffet-style setups like De la Guerra Dining Commons, the options — which initially seemed endless, with a salad bar and stir-fry and the self-serve ice cream bar — eventually become redundant. Eating there every single day really makes you want a home-cooked meal.
I missed nothing more than my mother’s chilaquiles, my favorite dish from growing up. I craved that familiar smell of freshly fried tortillas, which would hit my nose as I walked into our home after school.
Chilaquiles are fried tortilla chips, topped with green and or red salsa as well as sour cream and queso fresco, and usually accompanied by a side of eggs or sliced flank steak. Chilaquiles are prepared differently throughout Mexico, where they are often sold by street vendors near busy places like schools and churches. Some people prefer to use packaged tortilla chips rather than fry the tortillas themselves, and others just add a dash of salsa rather than soaking the tortillas in it. Though commonly a breakfast dish, chilaquiles are also perfect for lunch or dinner, as the dish can be a very filling meal.
Thankfully, chilaquiles was also the only dish I learned how to cook before arriving on campus, and the recipe only requires a few ingredients that can be acquired easily at the supermarket. After deciding to make the dish one Saturday afternoon, my friends and I took a 15-minute bus ride to Albertsons. Walking into the produce section, I was hit with an overwhelming feeling of nostalgia while picking out the vegetables, which reminded me of grocery trips for the same ingredients with my mother during my freshman year of high school. Like she does, I inspected the vegetables closely, checking for any signs of damage around the chili peppers and green tomatoes, and making sure the cilantro was not browning.
Nearing the corner of the Latin food aisle, I found the brightly colored garlic salt and Knorr seasoning packages, as well as the Guerrero brand tortillas — all the same exact ones that were in my kitchen back home. While everything felt unfamiliar being in a new region miles away from home, picking out these ingredients made me feel a little bit closer to my family.
The next step was cooking in the dorms, which wasn’t as hard as we expected. Trading in a student ID card for a pot and pan was all it took. Walking back toward the elevator, we made our way upstairs to the sixth floor, hoping no one had taken our spot in the kitchen, since it was on a first-come, first-serve basis.
We then scrambled around our floor’s tiny kitchen to prepare the dish — one of us chopping the onions, another frying the tortillas, all of us laughing at our lack of culinary skills as seen in the unevenly diced tortillas and onions. When I pulled out my small blender to finish the sauce, its motor started overworking and letting out an acrid smell, and we briefly feared that our brunch might trigger the building’s fire alarm.
Every so often, other students on our floor would pop in to interrogate us about what we were cooking. We’d respond in unison, “Chilaquiles!” They’d nod their heads and say, “Oh yeah, I’ve heard of those,” their pronunciation of the dish often quite different from the person before them.
As we finally sat down to enjoy the meal, a chorus of “Oh my god,” “This is so good,” and “I love this” filled the room. We decided to start a tradition of making a new recipe from our faraway homes every weekend, and we found joy every time, riding the bus and making grocery trips together. We shared family stories as we cooked together, and we bonded with each other over these shared meals, from spaghetti with garlic bread to freshly baked vegan cookies. Our Saturday brunch became something that we all looked forward to after every long week of being a college student, all thanks to my love for chilaquiles.
Make Your Own
The basic formula for chilaquiles, which are most often eaten at brunch, involves freshly fried tortillas topped with salsa, often leftovers from the previous day. But there are many variations that also include eggs, steak, chicken, beans, and more.
In this article, the author’s version from her mother features 12 tomatillos and seven chili peppers boiled and then blended with two cubes of chicken-flavored Knorr seasoning, four strands of cilantro, and a slice of onion for the salsa. Tortillas are cut into small cubes, which are fried in a pan with one clove of garlic. Once golden brown, sprinkle with garlic salt, douse with salsa, and add an egg.
Chilaquiles Around Town
Don’t feel like making chilaquiles yourself? A brief survey of Santa Barbara food lovers revealed that these restaurants make very solid versions.
The Boathouse: 2981 Cliff Dr., boathousesb.com
El Rincón Bohemio: 4141 State St. # F1
El Bajio: 129 N. Milpas St.; elbajiosb.com
Cajun Kitchen: Multiple locations; cajunkitchencafe.com
Lito’s: 514 E. Haley St.; litossb.com
Palapa: 4123 State St.;palaparestaurant.com
Rosales: 827 E. Montecito St.; rosalesmexicanrestaurant.com
Rose Café: 1816 Cliff Dr.; rosecafe2.com