I. Playa del Carmen, Mexico
I arrive at Playa del Carmen six hours too early to check into my hotel. This is the overzealous way I like to start my vacations: I torture myself with the earliest flight into the city so I can cram an impossible amount of meals and activities into my day. I usually end up with a weird limp and a bout of acid reflux that leaves me cowering in my hotel room, but it’s the thought that counts.
It’s my fifth wedding anniversary and Carlos and I decide to treat ourselves to a stay at the Mahekal Beach Resort. It’s a higher-end hotel with boutique tendencies whose TripAdvisor description includes the words “bungalow”, “outdoor showers”, and “hammocks” in it. I live in a reality where I’m genuinely excited to pay $600 a night to shower outside, sleep under a mosquito net and deprive myself of WiFi and phone connectivity.
Less than a five-minute walk away is La Cueva del Chango, a jungle-themed breakfast restaurant that gives the Rainforest Café a run for their money: there’s a live turtle sex show right next to your table while you’re sipping your fresh-squeezed Mexican orange juice.
“Chilaquiles, what’s that?” I ask as I scan the menu, noticing an entire section dedicated to variations of a fun, new word I could no longer stop repeating.
“Chee-lah-kee-lehs. Cheela-kweels. Chill-a-kwills.”
“Stop. We’re getting them,” Carlos insists. In the meanwhile, we delicately taste-test the variety of hot sauces that were placed at our table without explanation, a mostly unfortunate game of Russian Hot Sauce Roulette.
Fifteen more minutes of lively turtle foreplay later, our chilaquiles arrive.
Two deep-orange egg yolks sit on top of a small mountain of softened tortilla chips, smothered in roasted green tomatillo sauce, onions, crema and topped with sliced hass avocados and cilantro.
This new flavor and texture immediately registers in my brain as “soggy nachos.” Another bite re-registers as “soggy nachos left out in the living room all night sitting in delicious, tangy salsa that I eat with my bare hands when no one is looking.”
And that’s how chilaquiles became the best thing I ate in Mexico.
II. Austin, Texas
I’ve been in Austin for the last seven days, and I’m feeling like a shell of my former self. I ran out of socks, most of my clothes smell like a combination of B.O. and barbecue, and my fingers look like tube sausages due to a combination of dehydration and overconsumption (I stopped trying to take my wedding band off a few days ago.)
It’s the last day of the interactive and technology segment of the SxSW festival, and the music events are just starting to kick off. People in brightly colored sunglasses whose over-accessorizing makes them jingle as they walk the emptying halls of the Austin Convention Center begin to replace the attendees who came here on business with well-manicured beards outfitted in t-shirts they’re not used to wearing.
The shift in SxSW attendees gives the city a different look. It’s ten degrees warmer and there’s live music in every street corner and inside every shop. To celebrate our last day here, I open up one of my twelve bookmarked “Top 42 Best Places to Eat In Austin That Musicians Also Happen to Like” lists and come across Tamale House East. The article I’m reading says it’s known for their breakfast tacos and cozy outdoor patio.
“Holy shit, chilaquiles!” I announce as I read the menu, excited about my new personal discovery from the week prior.
“Well, see, they’re kind of like really soggy nachos, but not as gross as that sounds. In fact, they’re really not gross at all. They’re delicious. Eat them,” I unsuccessfully try to convince my group of coworkers.
I order the chilaquiles. Matt orders huevos rancheros, Damion orders vegetarian tacos, and Jason opts to eat his stowed-away muffin from the hotel café. No one wants to try my soggy nachos and I secretly resent them all.
III. Miami, Florida
I’ve hit the “reset Life” button after two weeks of travel and I find myself waking up at two-thirty in the afternoon. The first thing I check is Instagram. Half-face down on the pillow, I side-eye a feed full of my friends’ early-weekend life decisions. “Kayaking, six hours ago? Oh, fuck you,” I say to myself.
I see something instantly familiar. Chilaquiles for brunch. It was posted by 27 Restaurant just thirty minutes ago. Baader-Meinhof be damned, this was a sign, and I was going to take it.
The chilaquiles at 27 are not what I expected. Southeast Mexico and Texas gave me the ultra-softened-tortilla version of the dish: the chips fell apart if you held them up for longer than a few seconds and the egg yolks run down your wrist. These were not soggy at all. In fact, the tortilla chips appeared to be freshly made, purely existing as a vehicle to deliver the other ingredients into your mouth: braised short rib, egg, and queso.
The green tomatillo salsa is still enough to transport me, and I very easily begin to appreciate this Pokémon evolution of my favorite Mexican breakfast. Soggy or not, meat-heavy or vegetarian, American or Mexican, you’ll always find beauty in a heaping plate of chips with a bunch of stuff on it.