A twenty minute drive south brought me to the home of Raul Alatorre and his wife, Alicia, a newly transplanted couple of Mexican origin. The Alatorre’s moved eighteen months ago from Albuquerque, New Mexico to their suburban home in Ballantyne. Raul’s job of 22 years brought the couple here. He works for Mission Foods, the largest tortilla manufacturer in the United States.
Raul and his wife were recommended to me by Denise Botello-Coleman, a Mexican woman I met at the Levine Museum. She was speaking on a panel about Latino food and culture and I, well, I was looking for someone to have me over for dinner. Botello-Coleman joined us for dinner that night too.
When the gregarious and hospitable Raul answers the door, it is easy to see why Botello-Coleman calls him "The Mayor."
"Raul knows everybody," says Botello-Coleman who met the charismatic business man through her work with LATINA 102.3 FM.
Equally charming is his wife Alicia, who joins us shortly after Raul pours us a glass of limonada, a staple beverage in most every Mexican household. Alicia is petite, almost fragile, with hands that wave emphatically in the air when she talks and eyes that dance, even behind her glasses.
Alicia and Raul come from two different regions of Mexico and the pre-dinner conversation turns to a discussion about their favorite foods from home. Raul hails from Veracruz, Mexico, a port city nestled on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico.
If the Gulf carves a "C" into the coast, Veracruz sits in the lower "C" curve. The city of Veracruz bears distinct Spanish and Afro-Cuban influences and its favorable position on the coast provides impeccable seafood for Spanish dishes like ceviche and sopa de mariscos, a seafood soup.
Alicia is from a small town near Monterrey, located in the northeastern part of Mexico close to the Mexico-Texas border. Alicia talks of wonderful meat dishes like salpicon and machacado. One is a mixture of steak with spices, chiles, avocados, tomato and onion usually served on tostadas and the other is dried, cured beef.
Alicia and Denise, who come from the same region of northeast Mexico, shared their favorite memories of dishes like cabrito, a traditional dish made of kid goat that originated from the first Spanish-Jewish settlers in Monterrey. They talk of frittada, made from goat blood, and a very special part of the animal which was highly coveted by the whole family.
The menu for the evening was simple- tortilla soup, enchiladas with tomatillo salsa and the fluffiest rice with pinto beans. I later learned that neither Raul nor Alicia grew up cooking or with a matriarch in the kitchen. Both came from upper middle class families with parents that worked long hours and so, they had women in the household who helped with meals and other duties.
Alicia developed an affinity for cooking after moving to the United States. She still considers herself an amateur but finds comfort and connection to her roots when she prepares a Latin meal. It doesn’t hurt that she is married to a man in the food industry either. She proudly calls out her favorite brands for cooking.
"I have to have the Knorr Suiza, the one with the green cap," says Alicia. Knorr Suiza is chicken bouillon and is used to flavor everything Alicia cooks from soup to rice and beans.
For the most part, dinner was ready before my arrival. Alicia was quick to tell me that she was taught early on that "dinner has to be ready" when guests show up. She did, however, wait so we could watch her fry the tortillas. Mission tortillas, of course.
We sat in the formal dining room for dinner. Alicia laid out her finest silver, a wedding gift over two decades old and we were served the tortilla soup topped with crispy fried tortillas, and chunks of creamy avocado. The enchiladas were next, filled with shredded chicken and the most wonderful queso fresco topped with a fresh tomatillo salsa and the strangely addictive pinto beans, served as a side, had just the right viscosity to soak well into the fluffy, seasoned rice.
We had pecan pie for dessert, a nod to the Americanized side of the Alatorre’s and then our time quickly came to an end. The Alatorre’s were off to Pineville to meet up with a group of Latin Americans for a night of karaoke and drinks. Since moving to Charlotte, the Alatorre’s have connected with a number of Central and South Americans. Most of the time, they are the minority of their Latin circle as Mexicans. They love that about Charlotte, a melting pot within a melting pot.
To see more Latin Cuisine in Charlotte, watch this video from the Charlotte Video Project.
Alicia’s Tortilla Soup Recipe
- Garlic (or Garlic Powder)
- Salt & Pepper
- Whole Chicken
- Chicken Broth (or water)
- Knorr Suiza Powder (the one with the green cap)
- Chipotle Chiles (canned or substitute Tabasco)
- Mission Brand Tortillas
- Avocado, cut into chunks
In a large deep pot, heat some oil in a pan and saute the onions, cilantro, garlic and pepper (a sofrito) . Remove and place in a blender to puree. In the same pot, add the chicken and cover with water. Boil until the chicken is cooked, approximately 40 minutes.
In a separate pot, heat some more oil and when it is hot, add the blended sofrito and bring to a simmer. Add the chicken broth and bring to a boil and then add the Knorr Suiza. When it is tasty, add the chipotle chile and cook for another 10 minutes. While the soup finished, cut the Mission tortillas in strips and heat up some oil in a pan. When the oil is hot, fry the tortilla strips until crispy.
To build the soup: Place the tortillas and Mexican Style Cheese in the bowl. Ladle the soup over top and add avocado chunks. At the moment you eat the soup, squeeze fresh lemon or lime on top. Buen Apetito!