As we all know enchiladas are usually made with a chile-based sauce; enchiladas rojas with tomatoes, enchiladas verdes with tomatillos, enchiladas de mole with mole, and so forth.
These enchiladas however, not only have a cream-based sauce, and the chile is just a flavoring, but are also baked! Things have changed very much since I lived in Mexico City, but one would hope that at least some traditions prevail. After all, Mexico is an old country, and as such it is full of traditions. A family tradition, was to go downtown to any of the many good family restaurants on Saturdays, and if we were in the mood for enchiladas, the place to go was to the only restaurant that served at that time the Enchiladas Suizas.
La Casa de los Azulejos or The House of Tiles, located in the Centro Histórico was where the first Sanborns Restaurant opened for business in 1919. This beautiful building was originally the home of the Counts of the Orizaba Valley, descendants of Hernán Cortés, the Spanish conquistador. It is a magnificent example of Spanish colonial architecture, and this unique building along with the Casa del Marqués de Ramos in Lima, Perú, are considered by experts to be the only such buildings outside of Spain, masterly preserved for almost five hundred years.
With the fall of the Aztec empire on August 13, 1521, a chapter in history of more than two hundred years of one of the most extraordinary cultures of America came to an end. Cortés began organizing the political, economic and religious life of La Nueva España or New Spain, and one of the very first things he did was to provide his best men with land where they could build homes and start a family. Cortés gave them a few years either to bring a wife from Spain, or to marry an Indian.
Around 1530, at the onset of the colony, the construction of a modest house started for the first count of Orizaba. In the course of several decades, the house was then passed on to the different heirs who in turn made additions to the house in order to accommodate their family necessities. By 1828, several changes and additions had been made to this already majestic house. One of the most important additions, if not the most important, was the addition of the blue tiles to the facade known as Talavera of the Queen, made by the last count of Orizaba who died shortly after. Thus, the name of La Casa de los Azulejos or translated the House of Tiles.
The House of Tiles changed owners several times. One of them, Mr. Martinez de la Torre, a well known businessman, would organize literary gatherings at which prestigious poets and writers of the time were invited to read their works. After the demise of Mr. de la Torre, the Iturbe family bought the palace and just a few years later while residing in Paris, decided to rent it to two American entrepreneurs, the Sanborn brothers, Walter and Frank. The government was severely criticized for allowing the Iturbe family to rent such a property to foreigners. The deal finally went through with the condition that the building would be properly maintained and the architecture preserved. The Sanborn brothers converted The House of Tiles into the first restaurant of what it is nowadays, a huge chain of restaurants all over the country.
These new owners maintained and preserved the colonial style of the building and, coached by talented architects, added their own touch. The most visible addition to the building was the glass vault ceiling that covers the beautiful courtyard which serves as the main floor restaurant. This addition allowed famous painters to decorate the walls around the courtyard. Worth mentioning are the paintings of the well known Mexican muralist, Jose Clemente Orozco. La Casa de los Azulejos was declared a National Monument in 1931.
The Sanborns restaurants are very popular at any time of the day. Breakfast business meetings take place while savoring a great assortment of Mexican antojitos, delicious pan dulce (sweet rolls), or just to have coffee with friends and do some browsing or shopping. Fine costume jewellery, leather women’s purses, watches, photography equipment, books, magazines, newspapers of around the world, etc. All this, plus good food makes Sanborns or La Casa de los Azulejos, a place to visit when you are in Mexico City. In the meantime, try this version of the Swiss Enchiladas, which is a bit different from the one served in Sanborns, equally good if not better.
1 large chicken breast
½ celery stalk with leaves
¼ small onion
2 tbsp. cornstarch
2 cups whipping cream
½ cup chopped black or green olives
3 green onions, chopped
¼ cup chopped Serrano chiles, seeded
Salt and pepper
Vegetable oil for frying
12 corn tortillas
1 cup shredded Manchego or Chihuahua cheese
In salted boiling water, cook the chicken breast with the celery and onion for about 10 to 12 minutes. Drain the chicken breast and cool, reserving the chicken broth for future use. Discard the celery and onion. When cool enough to handle, shred it with your fingers and set aside.
In a small bowl, dissolve the cornstarch in ¼ cup of the whipping cream. In a saucepan, mix the dissolved cornstarch with the remaining whipping cream and heat over medium heat, stirring, until the cream starts to boil. Add the olives, onions, chiles, and salt and pepper to taste. Preheat the oven to 350ºF.
Remove the sauce from the heat and keep it warm. Mix about ½ cup of this cream sauce with the shredded chicken. Set the chicken and the rest of the cream sauce aside.
In a frying pan, heat the oil over medium-to-high heat almost to the point of smoking. Using a spatula, quickly dip each tortilla in the hot oil and transfer to paper towels to drain. Keep them warm until you have finished frying all the tortillas.
Dip a tortilla into the cream sauce, add about 2 tablespoons of the chicken, and roll up. Place the enchilada in a baking dish. Repeat this process with the rest of the tortillas. Spoon the remaining sauce over the enchiladas and cover with the cheese. Bake the enchiladas for about 8 to 10 minutes, or until the cheese is melted and they are heated through. Serve at once.
Another popular dish of the Sanborn’s Restaurants is Molletes, usually served for brunch, topped with a tomato salsa. For a light merienda or supper, these are also served with scrambled eggs .
For the sake of variation, I am also including the recipe of a tomatillo salsa with avocado, a family favourite.
Yields 6 molletes
Pre-heat the oven to 350ºF. Spread the bread with the refried beans. Add the salsa and top with enough cheese to cover bread. Place the molletes on a cookie sheet and bake for 5 to 8 minutes or until the cheese melts and the bread starts to brown. Serve immediately.
Green Salsa with Avocado
8 medium tomatillos, husked, stemmed, and washed
3 tbsp. chopped onion
1 large clove garlic
4 serrano chiles, stemmed
½ medium avocado, peeled
A free drops of lime juice
In a blender or food processor, combine the tomatillos, onion, garlic, chiles, avocado, lime juice, ¼ cup water, and salt to taste and purée until smooth. Add a bit of liquid if the salsa is too thick. Transfer the salsa to a serving bowl or salsera and serve.
I hope you’ve enjoyed a little more on history of Mexico, the story of Sanborns, the Swiss Enchiladas and a simple but delicious Molletes recipe. Please comment below your thoughts, and what you’d like me to write about if you have any suggestions. I’d love to hear them!
Maria Elena Cuervo-Lorens is the author of Mexican Culinary Treasures cookbook. She takes you back to her childhood, spent around her grandmother’s table on a shopping expedition with her mother to Mercado La Merced, and for a merienda (snack) of café con leche and biscochos (Mexican sweet rolls) at a bakery in downtown Mexico City. The authentic Mexican recipes she shares with us include tacos, quesadillas and enchiladas. The nouvelle cuisine of cosmopolitan Mexico City, such as cuitlacoche (huitlacohe) crepes, oysters with chipotle chile.