An Ode to a Salad
Victory for MSU! So many great memories come to mind from my Michigan State college days. I’ve done my best to block out memories of finals week, of having to stand in that endless line to register for classes in “The Pit” only to find a couple of them were full, and crossing the “Tundra” in January–the true definition of COLD!
But the Topopo Salad from the well-known East Lansing restaurant, El Azteco? I’m keeping that memory forever. It might just be the best salad ever discovered. Victory for MSU indeed.
My Intro to Mexican Food
With Mexican restaurants now found in every town, it’s hard to imagine that I never even tasted a taco before my college days. I never heard of an enchilada or burrito nor could I pronounce them. I grew up in a Polish-Italian neighborhood in Detroit. Pierogi and Gnocchi–yes. Tacos and enchiladas–no. So all of the Spanish words on El Azteco’s menu completely lost me. But I proudly learned how to pronounce those words, and El Azteco ended up opening up a whole new world of food for me. I am forever beholden.
A Life-Changing Restaurant
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. And this one had GREAT food, so we were sold!
Never mind the multiple health code violations and the fire hazard created when the stairs were packed full. We were always ready for our Mexican food “fix.” Patrons lined the block on Margarita night or $1 pitchers of beer night. Yes, that’s pitchers plural. We were college kids after all.
What made the Topopo so special?
What’s so special about a salad? The combination of flavors and textures in the Topopo just worked. It’s that simple.
Starting with a base of warm bean nachos, then topped with a very generous slathering of cool guacamole, the Topopo was finished with a mile-high mound of a Mexican-style chef’s salad that is packed full of chicken, cheese and veggies–even peas. It was like a volcano erupting with deliciousness, falling off the dinner plate by the time it arrived at the table.
Where did the Topopo Salad we love come from?
Because the Topopo Salad is not something I’ve seen on Mexican restaurant menus (I always check), I became curious about the Topopo’s history.
Being the good Spartan that I am, I started researching. I found an abundance of info on El Az and their signature dishes. After a half hour of surfing the web, I found all I needed to know. You can always count on fellow Spartans to share their knowledge.
Turns out California-based 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. One former El Az employee said the cookbook was hidden under a restaurant counter for reference.
Imagine my joy when I found a copy of that cookbook on the shelf at the Champaign Illinois Public Library used bookstore. I felt like a kid on Christmas morning!
The cookbook 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). I hit the jackpot finding that book which proudly shares space on my cookbook shelf.
Here’s the link to this treasure of a book, Sunset Mexican Cookbook, that can now be found on Amazon.com.
And in case you’re looking, here’s the link for the equally famous El Azteco Cheese Dip, which was not in the book.
Recreating the Topopo Salad
My version of the Topopo Salad is actually 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. I pass on the lard/fat used in making authentic refrieds. I’d rather use my fat grams on guac and cheese. These refrieds taste good so why borrow artery-clogging trouble by adding fat. The recipe makes a bunch–perfect for freezing in Ziplocs for future Topopos.
- I like to use a lower sodium tortilla chip. The El Milagro brand, El Milagro Totopos Homestyle Corn Tortilla Chips, can be found at Aldi. They’re a thick sturdy chip, perfect for holding all that yumminess on each chip so you won’t be wearing Topopo in your lap (or shirt in my case).
- I use a little less cheese for my “nacho” base than the original. Extra sharp cheddar is perfect since it packs so much flavor in a small amount. I can use a lot less cheese than I would normally use, once again saving some of those fat grams and calories for guac.
- For the guacamole, I use my usual Easy Guacamole recipe, and slather it all over the nacho base when it comes out of the oven or micro.
- For my salad, I choose to use a combination of mixed greens, cooked chicken, defrosted peas , and diced tomato, jalapeno, and green onion. Add shredded cheese of choice. Mix to combine.
- My version usually includes romaine lettuce, a handful of spinach, some red romaine or leaf lettuce, and always some iceberg. Nothing crunches like iceberg lettuce. You just gotta have it.
- As for the Parm, I use REAL Parmesan (NOT the stuff in the green can). It doesn’t have to be the imported Parmesan-Regiano. It just has to be real cheese. Parmesan cheese packs a bunch of flavor in a small amount, too. Once again, you don’t need to use as much. There’s also the added bonus of no chemical additives like what’s found in the “cheese” coming from the green can.
I understand that El Az still exists but is now located in a much more upscale venue near the original location. It even has rooftop dining. Real high class! I sure do hope the salad hasn’t changed from the one I remember and that the craft beer is served in something other than those old worn out plastic glasses.
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. And to El Azteco, a thank you for whetting our appetites to the world of Southwestern and Mexican food.
Sparty on my friends! Sparty on!
- 1 head of iceberg lettuce, chopped or shredded or about 4 cups of mixed lettuce/greens
- 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 cooked chicken, finely shredded )rotisserie chicken works)
- 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
- 20 corn tortilla chips (a couple of large handfuls)
- 2 cups refried beans, warmed (1 can if not using freshly made)
- 1-2 cups shredded Cheddar or Monterey Jack cheese
- 2 cups guacamole
- 2 cups salsa
- ½ cup canola oil or light tasting vegetable oil (I use light olive 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 mixture).
- 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.
- To Build 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!