Chilaquiles in the Mission District

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Los Jarritos
At Los Jarritos, the Reyes Padilla family's sit-down eatery on the corner of South Van Ness and 20th, components of the restaurant's fantastic chilaquiles remo are reminiscent of canonized comfort foods from other cultures.

Like noodles in a day-old lasagne, the quarters of fried corn tortilla are pasta-like, smothered in tomato sauce, congealed, pinioned under an oozing crown of cheese.  Nestled amongst the bits of tortilla, the long-simmered strands of chicken taste as if they have been lifted from a huffing stockpot of soup.  Scrambled eggs are there too, slippery and elusive, binding everything into a velvety mass further enriched and enlivened by a pour of crema.  As the crema melts and disappears, the effect is smooth:  none of the comforting elements stand out unless they're deliberately eaten apart from the others; taken together, the flavors are big and familiar, yet invigorating and, to the uninitiated, new.

Sometimes, the homiest dishes -- foods without pretense or artifice -- are most revealing about the cultures from which they spring, and inspire the most debate amongst their devotees.  However, from countless regional Mexican renditions -- like white sauces in Sinaloa and Guadalajara's polenta-like cazuela cook-downs -- to American adaptations that echo Tex-Mex migas, all chilaquiles aim to soothe -- regardless of a particular variation's provenance and claims to authenticity.

The other weekend, hungover and exhausted from a morning of pick-up basketball, I was looking for comfort in sustenance.  I found it easily, several thousand calories' worth:  two distinct and excellent versions of chilaquiles served up at two very different Mission District establishments.

The chilaquiles at Los Jarritos aren't particularly spicy, merely salty and luxurious.  Cranberry-colored and riddled with ice, a pitcher-sized glass column of agua fresca de jamaica -- a refreshing tea-like infusion of dried hibiscus flowers -- compliments the richness with tart notes as well as sweetness.


Furthermore, you need not make a breakfast of chilaquiles alone.  The "Mexicano" side of the divided desayunos menu -- the one from which you should be ordering -- is rife with other enticing offerings, like machaca, a melange of flank steak, scrambled eggs, onions, tomatoes, and peppers, and huevos divorciados.  The latter boasts tender pork cubes in two sauces -- a red, oily chile colorado and a spicy, slightly sour chile verde -- kept separate and served atop two runny fried egg rounds.  The basket of pillowy, sweating tortillas comes in handy here. Strips of the thick discs are good for sopping sauce and scooping up errant morsels, but, nibbled unadorned, they also offer a welcome respite from the heavy assault of pig and eggs.

Interestingly, there are huevos con amor as well, but they are not as delicious and, surprisingly, no less expensive.

Inside, Los Jarritos looks as bold as its food tastes, like a typically kitschy roadside diner wonderfully lost in translation.  A chalkboard announces specials like birria and menudo.  The tabletops are a lively turquoise; sombreros swing from hooks high up on the walls alongside toy guitars in pastel hues and large black-and-white photographs.  A miniature plastic marlin peers down blankly from a lower perch.  Tiny painted drinking mugs -- the restaurant's namesake -- hang in bunches between the windows.
By comparison, the interior of the four-year-old Los Pastores is demure:  a floor tiled in matte brown squares, a beige back counter, and peach walls dotted with a few faded reviews in simple frames.  If the inside of the restaurant is austere, the outside is barely visible at all, even from just across the street -- a narrow storefront at the foot of Bernal Hill, right where Cortland runs into Mission.

Chilaquiles con huevos from Los Pastores. Photo by Bucko W.

Here, the chilaquiles con huevos barely resemble their chicken-laden counterparts at Los Jarritos. Tortilla triangles are fried until they are brittle and brown around the edges, and arranged over a shallow pool of thin green sauce shot through with citrus and chile heat.  Cojita-studded crema tops the chips, darting out in little rivulets from under a trio of overlapping fried eggs that leak yolk at the slightest twist of a fork.  When the big plate arrives, the individual parts are distinct, uncombined, but their sum emerges gradually over the course of eating.  The first few bites contain crisp tortilla, a little sauce, and a sliver or two of egg.  Pour the bowlful of extra sauce over the eggs, and let it soak in.  Once the sauce has done its work, and the broken yolks from the eggs have been swirled in, the tortilla chips will be soft, with just a pleasurable hint of the old crunch remaining.  You can order chilaquiles with steak in lieu of eggs but either way, skip coffee, and instead slurp a pineapple agua fresca -- ultra-sweet, extremely cold, and topped with pale froth like a soda jerk's quaffable confection.

Because chef, owner, and server Irma Calderon does all the work herself, service at Los Pastores is fastest when the room is empty -- early on a weekend morning.  Bustling Los Jarritos is a more polished operation, but a server still sidles up and cracks, "time's up!" five minutes after the menus have been opened -- not that you really care.

Visit either restaurant on a Saturday at any time, order up some chilaquiles, and indulge in a self-satisfied smirk as you contemplate the mornings many neighborhood brunchers are putting themselves through:  forty-five minute waits on crammed sidewalks for mediocore food they'll end up scarfing in a 20-minute frenzy.  

Oh, you might be waiting too, but at least you'll be at a table, comforted by the chilaquiles in your near future, sipping an agua fresca, and enjoying good fellowship -- ingredients of which great morning meals are made.