A great tortilla soup can be a revelation -- rich with an intriguing roasted-corn flavor, vibrant with color and toasty, tantalizing aromas.
Classic tortilla soup, the way you'd find it in Mexico City, is simply good chicken broth combined with roasted tomatoes, onion, garlic, chiles and tortillas, cut into strips and fried. It's wonderfully satisfying, "a sort of soul food soup," as Mexican cooking authority Diana Kennedy puts it.
In California, it's often made with a tomato base thickened with ground tortillas, but there are variations, such as a bean soup enriched with crunchy strips of fried tortillas.
"To be really authentic, the soup should have only a little white onion, raw not cooked, blended with roasted tomato," says Kennedy, speaking from her home near Zitacuaro in the state of Michoacan.
The blend is fried, "to intensify the flavor," she says. "Then it goes into the broth." In addition to chile and tortillas, the soup ought to include epazote. "A tortilla soup without epazote is not worth eating, to my mind. But I'm a purist," she says.
Oddly, no one knows where tortilla soup came from, not even Kennedy. "It's certainly not all over Mexico," she says. "It's in the center, around Mexico City, the home of tortilla soup."
Although Dan Strehl, culinary historian and translator of "Encarnacion's Kitchen" (the 2003 cookbook drawn from Encarnacion Pinedo's 1898 California cookbook "El Cocinero Espanol") can't pinpoint the arrival of tortilla soup in California, it had certainly made its way north by the mid 20th century. It appears in "Elena's Famous Mexican and Spanish Recipes," published in San Francisco in 1944. That recipe, by Elena Zelayeta, doyenne of Mexican cooking in California, is a simple combination of broth, tomato puree and tortilla strips, to which she added mint leaves.
In Southern California, tortilla soup has been on the menu at 80-year-old Ojai Valley Inn longer than anyone on the staff can remember; it started to appear in haute versions in other restaurants in the 1980s, when regional Southwestern flavors were championed by chefs such as John Sedlar.
Today, compelling tortilla soups can be found at several Los Angeles Mexican restaurants. Jaime Martin del Campo and Ramiro Arvizu of La Casita Mexicana in Bell riff on a classic central Mexican version by pureeing guajillo chiles along with tomatoes. They grind fried tortillas with the mixture too, which amplifies the corn flavor.
The version served by Carlos Haro of Casablanca Restaurant in Venice is adapted from a recipe by cookbook author Alicia Gironella De'Angeli of Mexico City, whom he engaged as a guest chef in the 1980s.
Roasted vegetables and chicken stock, lightly thickened with beans, is the base, then chopped cilantro, fried tortilla strips and raw onion are added to the broth, along with a garnish of cool queso fresco and crunchy roasted chiles.
Cafe Verde in Pasadena has a terrific rendition composed of ground tortillas and roasted vegetables. It's spicy with chile and topped with crisp tortilla strips and cool strands of sour cream.
Kennedy includes an unusual version -- sopa de bolitas de tortillas (tortilla ball soup) in her 2000 book, "The Essential Cuisines of Mexico."
Tortillas are dried, then turned into crumbs in a blender and mixed with cotija cheese, milk and egg. Formed into small balls and fried, they're briefly simmered in the broth they're presented in. They're a bit like a hush puppy to bite into, but with their own unique flavor.
"Oh, God, I love it," says Kennedy. We do too.
Cafe Verde tortilla soup
Total time: 55 minutes
Note: From Cafe Verde in Pasadena. Look for ground dried ancho chiles (sometimes labeled pasillo) in the spice section of selected markets, especially
2 Roma tomatoes
1/2 large white onion, peeled
6 whole corn tortillas, plus 2 more cut into thin strips and fried for garnish
2 dried ancho chiles
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic
1 bay leaf
1/2 cup cilantro leaves
2 cups tomato juice
1 cup vegetable stock, or more to taste
1 quart water
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground dried ancho chiles, or more to taste
1/2 cup sour cream
1. In batches, on a grill or rack (such as a cooling rack) over an open stovetop flame, roast the tomatoes, onion and whole tortillas until lightly spotted with brown, then roast the chiles for a few seconds (after which they'll start to burn). Break the tortillas into pieces.
2. Heat the olive oil in a medium saucepan. Add the garlic cloves and saute over medium-low heat for 1 to 2 minutes. Add the tomatoes, breaking them up with a wooden spoon. Add the onion, chiles, tortilla pieces, bay leaf and cilantro. Cook for 10 minutes.
3. Add the tomato juice, stock and water. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer 15 minutes.