Thinking of a Topopo Salad and Feeling Nostalgic
Victory for MSU! So many great memories come to mind from those Michigan State college days. I’ve blocked out the memories of finals week, registering for classes in The Pit, and crossing the “Tundra” in January, though. But THE Topopo Salad from the well-known East Lansing restaurant, El Azteco, ranks right up there with being one of my favorite memories.
Some of my best memories were connected to my introduction to Mexican food and especially the Topopo Salad at El Azteco. El Az, as it was affectionately known, was a dark damp basement hole-in-the-wall restaurant that served cheap Mexican food and beverages. As students, that’s all it took for a restaurant to become a favorite. But this one had GREAT food so we were sold! Kids lined the stairs and the block to get their Mexican “Fix” on $1 pitchers of beer or Margarita night.
What made the Topopo so special?
Starting with a base of bean nachos, then topped with a slathering of guacamole, and finished with mile-high amount of a Mexican-style chef’s salad overflowing the plate. It was HUGE and oh so good.
I can’t recall which of my college BFFs started me on the path to my lifelong Topopo Salad “addiction,” but I am forever grateful to so many who were willing to share that overflowing plate of salad. Sparty on my friends! Sparty on!
But where did it really come from?
As with so many of the recipes I either prepare or read about, I started thinking about the Topopo’s history. Because it’s not something I’ve typically seen on menus, I wondered did the Topopo come from?
The origins weren’t difficult to find after a few minutes of surfing the web. Turns out Sunset Magazine published a cookbook back in the early 1970s that featured not only the Topopo but a few other favorite recipes on the El Azteco menu.
I found a copy of that cookbook on the shelf at the Champaign Public Library used bookstore a few years ago. It was a slightly newer addition, but as I flipped through the pages, I found the recipes for all of my favorites including Enchiladas de Jocoque and the “original” Topopo salad (I like the El Az version better). Once again, I hit the jackpot finding this book.
Recreating the Topopo Salad
I’ve had a version of the Topopo Salad recipe since living in Dallas. An old college friend and former El Az employee, shared what she thought was the recipe for the Topopo. She was pretty close to the exact recipe, which can now easily be found on the internet posted by other former employees.
My version of the Topopo Salad is slightly healthier than that served at El Az. First I start by using my recipe for Refried Beans that I make in the slow cooker. There’s not much fat in it. Also, I like to use a lower sodium tortilla chip, from El Milagro, The El Milagro Totopos Homestyle Corn Tortilla Chips that I get from Aldi.
I use a little less cheese, extra sharp cheddar actually, because it packs so much flavor in a small amount. As a result, I can use a lot less cheese than I would normally use, safe a few fat grams and calories, and still get Topopo.
In addition, by using REAL Parm (NOT the stuff in the green can), I can get more flavor there too, with no chemical additives like that “cheese” coming from the green can.
I am told El Az still exists but is now located in a much more upscale venue near the original location, with rooftop dining. I’m sure the atmosphere is not nearly as much fun as it was back in the day, but since the menu is the same, I’ll be back…one of these days.
- 1 cup frozen peas thawed
- 1/2-1 cup shredded cheese Monterey Jack, cheddar or white Mexican cheese (I use ½ c sharp cheddar)
- 2 cups chicken cooked and finely shredded (rotisserie chicken works) (optional)
- 1 small jalapeno finely chopped (seeded or unseeded, to taste)
- 4 green onions finely chopped (about ½ cup)
- 1 large tomato diced
- Freshly grated Parmesan cheese to taste
- Nacho Base
- 20 corn tortilla chips a couple of large handfuls
- 2 cups refried beans warm (1 can if not using freshly made)
- 1-2 cups shredded Cheddar or Monterey Jack cheese
- 2 cups guacamole
- 8 ounces salsa
- ½ cup canola oil
- ¼ cup apple cider vinegar
- ½ teaspoon sugar
MIX salad ingredients together in a large bowl.
In a small bowl, COMBINE dressing ingredients and STIR to combine.
ADD small amount of dressing, about ¼ cup, to the salad mixture. (Use just enough to coat salad
For the nacho base: On a large oven or microwave- friendly plate, LAYER tortilla chips. SPREAD warm refried beans evenly over chips. TOP with cheddar or Monterey Jack cheese. SET under the broiler for a couple of minutes to melt the cheese or POP it into the microwave for about 1 minute. TOP melted cheese with guacamole and SPREAD evenly. SPREAD salsa on top.
For the salad: Slowly PLACE your salad mixture on top of the “nachos” and cover completely, gradually adding less and less salad as you form a “volcano” peak. SPRINKLE the top with grated Parmesan. SERVE with additional salsa (and lots of napkins). It’s messy but oh so good! Serves 4