Ask a neighbor which food is synonymous with Dallas, and she will likely say steak. Maybe he’ll chime in with barbecue or Tex-Mex, meaning margaritas and queso. Why doesn’t anyone say tortilla soup? The ubiquity of its place on menus, both Tex-Mex and traditional, indicates its importance in Dallas, yet poor Tortilla Soup is overlooked when we are called upon to cite our indigenous cuisine.
We can’t really claim it, anyway, but it deserves a mention. Tortilla soup is indigenous to Mexico, specifically Tlaxcala, which means “land of the corn” near Mexico City. The Mexico City-style soup is thin and brothy, with chunks of chicken, avocado, cheese, and crunchy tortilla strips added.
Other iterations of the soup are thicker, made with a slurry of masa harina and water to give it a creamier texture and a corny, earthy flavor. Some versions contain beans for which I will not shame you, but neither will I claim you.
The definitive Dallas version of tortilla soup was introduced at The Mansion Restaurant in the early ’80s. Caroline Rose Hunt once told me she tasted the soup in San Antonio and then requested that The Mansion serve it. It’s been part of the culinary DNA of The Mansion ever since, even when Michelin Star-French Chef Bruno Davaillon was at the kitchen’s helm. The recipe is found in The Mansion on Turtle Creek Cookbook Haute Cuisine, Texas Style by Rizzoli, as well as in national magazines such as Food & Wine and online at FoodNetwork.com and even Pinterest. It is heritage in a bowl.
Today, Tortilla Soup is on menus across the city, some under the name Sopa de Pollo or Sopa de Azteca. Some versions, such as Blue Mesa Grill, which has a “Best Of” label on its version, add chipotle peppers to the stock to give it some smokey heat. Rex’s Seafood adds crab to their version. The Mermaid Bar at Neiman Marcus serves a tortilla soup so thick and chunky it’s almost unrecognizable from The Mansion’s and adds heavy cream, but it’s not bad.
Tex-Mex restaurants are obvious places to get a cuppa soup. Casa Rosa serves The Mansion’s version, Rafa’s, Mi Cocina, Escondido, and fast-casual joint Taco Deli all have tortilla soup on their menus, and they are all pretty similar. Odelay adds grilled chicken to theirs. E Bar Tex-Mex has a version that, like everything else there, is excellent.
Among the upscale Mexican restaurants, only The Mexican and Las Palmas have it on the menu.
Less expected places to find tortilla soup on the menu is Dunston’s and The Rustic, two restaurants I don’t frequent, so I can’t describe them. Al Biernat’s serves it as the soup of the day on Thursdays, and its the version thickened with tortillas and includes corn, while Sevy’s Grill serves a pretty traditional version on Wednesdays. Preston Hollow’s Neuhaus Café serves it daily. Parigi, a French bistro, has it sporadically as its soup of the day. Even Avner Samuel, former Executive Chef of The Mansion and now a private chef and caterer, will make a batch of his Tortilla Soup for groups.
The soup is easy to make at home. A few years ago, some friends and I took a cooking class at Rosewood San Miguel de Allende and made it. The trick, I learned from the chef, is to whip it in a Vitamix so it becomes creamy without calories. I still do this today. My kids always raved about the tortilla soup at Highland Park Middle School, and that inspired my daughter, now living in London, to make Tortilla Soup without the tortillas, which I guess is just called Sopa de Pollo.
I hope by now that I’ve convinced you to recognize Tortilla Soup as a Dallas food. I’m launching a campaign to designate a National Tortilla Soup Day in November, somewhere between National Chinese Take-Out Day on November 5 and National Baklava Day on the 17th. I might call upon my readers to support this effort with marches and letters to your congressman. I hope I can count on you.
We are in soup season, finally. I reckon many of you reading this will crave Tortilla Soup now. If I’ve missed your favorite venue for it, please tell me about it in the comments. I’m headed to E Bar, myself.