In December, Juan Sánchez, who was then a chef at Made Nice, Eleven Madison Park’s casual sister restaurant, started an Instagram account: @citlali_cocina. After five years in New York, Sánchez had noticed that the city’s Mexican food was mostly confined to the styles of a few regions, including Puebla, in central Mexico, and Oaxaca, in the south. Citlali Cocina would be a small way to highlight the cuisine of his home town, Guadalajara, and a place to collect ideas for the restaurant that he hoped to open someday.
The first photo he posted was a glamour shot of a quesadilla, a pale corn tortilla topped with thick, melty strands of quesillo, a stretchy cheese, and a leaf of epazote, an aromatic herb, sprinkled with tequesquite, a mineral salt used since the pre-Hispanic era. A video followed: glistening chunks of birria de res, beef marinated in chilis, spices, and herbs, covered in banana leaves, and cooked for four hours.
On Christmas Eve, there appeared a tantalizing image of a bowl piled with a poached egg, coarsely crumbled white cheese, and wispy greens, under which peeked the corners of tortilla chips coated in red salsa. Beside it was a mug containing a dark, glossy beverage. “There’s nothing like waking up to a warm hug of chilaquiles and café de olla,” the caption read. How could Sánchez have known that he was describing his future business model?
In March, Sánchez was furloughed from Made Nice and began to while away quarantine by drafting a dream menu. By summer, he had decided that he didn’t have to wait to open a restaurant, and in August he turned the kitchen in his Greenpoint apartment semi-professional, accepting orders for pickup once a week, between 11 A.M. and 2 P.M. on Sundays. There was only one thing on the menu: warm hugs in the form of chilaquiles.
Chilaquiles is a dish popular all over Mexico, in endless iterations, especially for breakfast or brunch. (It can work wonders on a hangover.) The common denominator is stale tortillas—chilaquiles is to Mexican tortillas as pain perdu is to French bread—cut up and fried into chips, then tossed in salsa on the stove or in the oven; the less time cooked, the crispier the final dish.
There’s nothing about Sánchez’s version that makes it particularly Guadalajaran. His recipe is as unique to him as his accent, which sounds distinctly Mexican but also a bit Liverpudlian; he lived in England for two years. He gets his corn tortillas from the Bronx, cuts them into postage-stamp-size squares, lets them dry out for a few days, fries them until crunchy, and cooks them in salsa on the stove only briefly.
Sánchez’s smoky-sweet salsa is made with tomatillos, mild, fruity guajillo chilis, and dried chiles de árbol, for heat. Once coated, the chips get topped with queso fresco, chopped white onion, and a sprinkling of delicate greens or edible flowers from the farmers’ market. For a few extra dollars, he’ll add avocado, a poached or over-easy egg, and a perfectly cooked, skin-on boneless chicken breast. It’s a truly glorious combination.
Sánchez doesn’t currently offer café de olla, which is coffee steeped with cinnamon and unrefined cane sugar, though he may yet—he is slowly starting to expand his menu. In the meantime, you can get café de olla at For All Things Good, a brand-new Bed-Stuy café and molino, or mill. The mill grinds corn, imported from Mexico, to make its own masa, which is sold uncooked and is also used to press house-made tortillas. When the tortillas grow stale, they’re made into chips, some of which are destined for chilaquiles.
In this version, the chips are cooked much longer in the salsa, so that they start to take on the texture of porridge, and the cheese is a disk of queso Chihuahua, griddled until it wears a beautiful skirt of lacy frico. It’s different, but no less comforting or delicious. New York needs all the chilaquiles it can get. (Citlali Cocina chilaquiles $10. For All Things Good chilaquiles $10.) ♦