Young and Hungry

What I Ate on My Summer Vacation: Enchiladas

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Perhaps it's because I lived in Texas for so many years, but when I think of enchiladas, I think of the Tex-Mex variety. You know the ones: tightly rolled corn tortillas stuffed with a thick, neon-orange sludge of Velveeta, topped with a semi-spicy chili gravy, and sprinkled with shredded cheddar cheese (or more Velveeta, or both).

So disgusting. So awesome.

Now, I've had fancier versions, too. The kind made with fresh Mexican cheese or Monterey Jack or cotija cheese or, God forbid, goat cheese. I've had enchiladas stuffed with spinach, with huitlacoche, and with various kinds of trendy meats. I've enjoyed many of them, but when I want enchiladas, I usually want a good, greasy pile of Velveeta cheese and tortillas smothered in chili gravy.

The first restaurant Carrie and I visited in Mexico was a place that looked, for all intents and purposes, like a tourist trap. It's called Los Rancheros, and it's located just yards away from the water on Playa del Carmen. Like everywhere else in Mexico, there was an hombre standing out front at Los Rancheros, barking at us to come inside and check things out.  He said they have air-conditioning. We were starving and hot. So we took up his offer.

Carrie and I were the only ones in the main dining room, which was more refined than the carnival barker outside would have suggested. There were tablecloths and water glasses on the table. The waiters replaced used utensils with each course, as if we were dining at a four-star restaurant. I started to feel better about our choice.

The waiter tried to direct me toward an expensive platter of seafood, but I wasn't in the mood. Instead, I ordered the chicken and cheese enchiladas, wanting to see how they compare to those in the states, whether Tex-Mex, gourmet, or whatever.

Like the dining room, these enchiladas were on the refined side — so refined, in fact, that the cooks didn't even bother to roll the tortillas into tight cigars. They merely flipped the tortillas over once to cover the filling, as if they were crepes. My tortilla crepes were then topped with the lightest, most delicate tomato sauce I've ever had on enchiladas. Its flavor was more sweet than piquant, which surprised me for a Mexican restaurant on the Yucatan. As a final touch, the enchiladas were drizzled with crema and sprinkled with queso fresco.

The dish was utterly delicious. The tortillas were warm and fresh and bursting with corn flavor, the perfect complement to the sweet, savory fillings and toppings.

But the enchiladas weren't complete until I added a minuscule amount of the hot sauce from the small cup on our table. The stuff was deep green in color, as lush as a Yucatecan jungle — and just as hot as one. This sauce was nuclear, due to the presence of the pepper most common on the peninsula — the habanero. Yet in the proper doses, the hot sauce added just the right amount of heat — and a slight bit of fruitiness — to those mouthwatering enchiladas.

I knew right then that Carrie and I were in for a lot of good eating on this trip.

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