Saturday, December 5, 2009

A touch of El Diablo

My last post on Chips and Salsa mentioned an old chain restaurant that is no longer in business, Chi Chi's. The brand lives on in supermarkets where you can purchase salsa, taco seasoning, and corn fritter mix, but when it was a restaurant chain, it was among Sandra's and my favorite places despite the fact that it was a chain.

What was special about Chi Chi's? The taste. I may have fell in love with Mexican food at El Torito, but Chi Chi's always had a fresher taste. I believe that they used cilantro more liberally than in any other place I ate at when I first started on my Mexican kick, and cilantro has this very "fresh" taste that enhances salsa, rice, and most Mexican dishes. This fresh taste made me feel that every dish they made was made solely for me. It's a wonderful way to run a restaurant--freshness is probably a quality that will keep you coming back, and it worked for me with Chi Chi's.

I remember one of the first times that Sandra and I visited Chi Chi's. I believe it was in Sunrise, Florida, in Broward Country up route 27 (this was before I-75 and I-595 were created, and Rt. 84 was "Alligator Alley"). The two of us made quick work of their chips and salsa and we asked the waiter for more. He cheerfully brought us out some more warm chips, but then admonished us: "You should watch out. They expand when they hit your stomach!" Sandra and I were both amused by this, and we've repeated it to each other (and our kids) many, many times whenever we eat chips and salsa.

Anyway, as I mentioned in my other article, I grew up thinking that Mexican food was hot. I've learned since that while you can find some spicy Mexican dishes, you are more likely to find dishes that don't have too much spiciness at all. In fact, corn and cheese really defines the cuisine, with spiciness a distant third.

After I moved from Miami to New England, I found a Chi Chi's was never too far away. The closest was a twenty minute drive, which was close enough for a special meal for Sandra and me.

I remember one day when I was visiting Chi Chi's, they had some new items on their menu, advertised to be pretty spicy. They were touted as Diablo (Spanish for "Devil"), but of the selections, nothing really appealed to me. At the time, I favored Chi Chi's beef chimichangas, and didn't want to order anything that was too different from that. Luckily, I noticed that they also had Diablo Sauce, which could be ordered separately, so I did. It came out with my chimichanga in a small bowl. The sauce was deliciously spicy--a warm, green sauce with meat in it. After a taste, I knew that they had something special, and I dumped most of it over my chimichangas and--voila!--a very good dish became ever better! I left a bit of sauce so that I could dip my chips into it.

From that day, I had a new favorite dish, and until the Chi Chi's near us closed, the Beef Chimichangas with a side order of Diablo Sauce was what I ordered every time I visited the place.

Alas, the place is no more. They closed the restaurants near me quite a few years ago, and the entire chain has since gone out of the restaurant business.

Last spring, I was feeling nostalgic about Chi Chi's and did a Google search to find out whatever became of them. In doing so, I found a Chi Chi's Copycat Recipes site, which I linked in my previous article. Two recipes linked on that sight intrigued me: Baked Chicken Chimichanga Chi Chi's Copycat Recipe and Chi Chi's Diablo Sauce Copycat Recipe. I copied those recipes into my personal recipe collection and did a Chi Chi's Mexican Dinner night with Sandra, including some freshly fried tortilla chips and Chi Chi's Garden Salsa (see previous post). Both Sandra and I enjoyed the trip down memory lane, although Sandra has never been as fond of the Diablo Sauce as I was; the recipe they gave would have made too much for the two of us.

I include the recipes for the Diablo sauce and the chimicangas below.

Chi-Chi's Diablo Sauce

Source:#131271 (C) 2009 Recipezaar. All Rights Reserved.
Cook Time:35 min
Prep Time:10 min
Yield:Serves 4


1 lb ground pork

2/3 cup chopped white onion

1 (4 ounce) can diced green chilies, with juice

10 tablespoons la victoria green chili salsa

jalapeno (x-tra hot)

3 cups water

1 (1 ¼ ounce) package Ortega taco seasoning (Hot & Spicey)

2 tablespoons cumin

½ teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons cornstarch

¼ cup water

Brown ground pork, onions.

Add diced chilis, La Victoria salsa.

Add 3 cups water.

Add Ortega taco seasoning.

Add ½ tsp salt.

add 2 tbsp cumin.

Combine 2 tbsp corn starch and ¼ cup water and add too sauce.

Continue to simmer till thickened.

Baked Chicken Chimichangas like Chi-Chi's®

Source:Copycat Recipe Site
Prep Time:0:45
Yield:Serves : 8


1 sm. onion - chopped

3 cloves garlic - minced

1 Tbls vegetable oil OR butter OR margarine

2 cups salsa

1 ½ tsp chili powder

½ tsp ground cumin

½ tsp ground cinnamon

1 pinch salt

2 ½ cups cooked, shredded chicken OR turkey

8 12 flour tortillas

1 cup canned refried beans

non-stick cooking spray - as needed

In a large saucepan over medium-high heat, sauté onion and garlic in oil/butter until tender; stir in salsa, chili powder, cumin, cinnamon, and salt; fold in chicken/turkey; remove from heat and set aside.

Working with one tortilla at a time, spoon 2 Tablespoons of beans down the center of each tortilla; top with a scant ½ cup of the chicken mixture.

Fold the top and bottom of the tortillas toward the center, then roll up the sides.

Secure with wooden toothpicks or pieces of spaghetti noodles if necessary.

Place chimichangas in a 13" X 9" X 2" baking pan, seam side down.

Spray all sides of the chimichangas with a light coating of cooking spray.

Bake in a 450 degree oven for 20-25 minutes, or until golden brown and crisp, turning after 10 minutes.

Serve with sour cream and guacamole.

Bon Appetit!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Chips and Salsa

I believe that I've mentioned in the past that I was nearly twenty years old before I truly encountered Mexican cuisine. Before that, I had tacos, having learned to love them at the Jack in the Box fast food chain in my home town of Brentwood, NY. From that humble beginning, I slowly tested the waters, first with Taco Bell in Centereach (I went there with Sandra on a date; I was a big spender back then!), and then some other chains.

I admit that I was a bit naive when it came to Mexican food at that point in my life. All that I really knew about it was that it was hot. After all, there were many instances in cartoons where somebody would have Mexican food and then would get all red with smoke coming out the cartoon character's nose, ears, and other orifices. There were many jokes about Mexican food as well, like "Mexican weather report: Chile Today, Hot Tamale!"

My first taste of Mexican food was at a chain restaurant called El Torito in South Miami. This restaurant was in a lovely outdoor mall called "The Falls." For a person that wasn't that familiar with the cuisine, I was immediately in food heaven. There were all these things that I've vaguely heard about before, but now they were right there in front of me on the menu: Tacos, enchiladas, burritos... you name it! Oh yeah... Margaritas as well!

I frequented that restaurant quite a bit, although I didn't explore much beyond the typical tacos and enchilads (all beef, of course!). I also tried other Mexican restaurants, and being in Miami, most of them were pretty decent.

One thing common to nearly every Mexican restaurant I visited were the complimentary corn chips and salsa that were placed on the table, usually accompanied with "salsa," which is the local word for "sauce." The salsa was made with tomatoes, chiles, onions, cilantro, and other wonderful things. This simple starter became yet another reason I would fall in love with the Mexican cuisine.

Back in the early 1980s, you could get tortilla chips in the grocery store. I remember Fritos, of course, and later came Doritos. I think Old El Paso had box of chips called Nachips. However, these highly salted and mass produced chips didn't compare to the fresh chips that were made at the restaurants. Eventually, I learned how to take soft corn tortillas, cut them into wedges, and fry them to make decent chips myself. (That's the basic recipe; cut, fry, drain, serve!)

What set most restaurants apart--their signature, as it were--was their salsa. Some made it incredibly spicy, some were chunkier than others, some were almost a strained liquid. I liked a lot of them, disliked a few. One of my earliest favorite salsas came from a restaurant chain, of all places. Chi Chis had a salsa that just seemed fresher than the others. I eventually found out that the fresh taste was how I was interpreting the taste of cilantro, which apparently was a bit more predominant in Chi Chi's salsa than a lot of others. Chi Chis is no longer a restaurant chain, and since moving up north, I've found a few Mexican restaurants that I enjoy--usually all of them have a pretty good chips and salsa to start, although I've see a couple of restaurants start to charge for this. (Please, let's hope this is not a sign of things to come!!!)

Anyway, I found that I'm not the only person to miss Chi Chi's recipes. I've found a fan page for the place which has a recipe or two, and links to other recipes on the web. It was from this page that I found a pretty good copycat recipe for Chi Chi's garden salsa, which I present below:

Chi Chi's Fresh Garden Salsa Recipe Clone

Source:Chi Chis Copycat Recipes


2 pounds fresh roma tomatoes

1 bunch of fresh cilantro

1 bunch green onions

1 onion

2 limes or ¼ cup of lime juice

2 serrano peppers (If you substitute jalapenos, add about 5 drops of Tabasco sauce)

3 garlic cloves

3 tablespoons cumin

1 tablespoon each: salt, garlic powder, oregano, chili powder

1 teaspoon sugar

1 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper

Chop up the tomatoes, both onions, and cilantro. Put almost half of the tomatoes into a blender with the lime juice, peppers, garlic, and rest of the spices. Blend until thick, but not watery. Add this mixture to the rest of the ingredients in a serving bowl. Put in the refrigerator for a few hours to allow the flavors to develop.

Bon Appetit!