El Cafe-style enchiladas

Someone found my post mentioning that I had the enchilada recipe from Seattle’s sadly defunct El Cafe, where I worked as a dishwasher and prep cook in the early 1980s. I don’t actually have a recipe, but I think I’ve done a decent job reconstructing it. A word of warning: these aren’t “real” enchiladas (neither was what they served at El Cafe), but they do taste mighty good.

1 pound boneless skinless chicken breast
2 15-oz cans tomato sauce
2 fresh jalapeno peppers. Do not use canned; it’s not nearly as good.
4 T chili powder
4 T ground cumin
Salt and pepper
10 corn tortillas
About 12 oz each of grated sharp cheddar and Monterey jack cheese, mixed together

Preheat oven to 325. Put the chicken in an oven-safe pot and just cover with water. Cover, and place in oven for 45 minutes. It’s important not to boil the chicken on the stovetop as it will be too dry. After 45 minutes, test the chicken by cutting into the thickest piece and making sure it’s cooked through. You want the chicken to be just cooked, so if it’s not quite done, check it every 5-10 minutes. When it’s ready, remove from the water and place in the fridge, covered. You can use the stock to make Spanish rice — and perhaps I’ll post the recipe for that later this week.

Turn the oven up to 450.

Slice the peppers in half and remove the seeds. You can keep them in, but it’ll be SCORCHING hot. Chop finely. Place in saucepan with the tomato sauce and stir in the chili powder and cumin. Cook at least until heated through; ideally you’d let it simmer for 15 minutes or so, but it’s going to make a mess as it blurps all over your stovetop. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Take your tortillas and run them under a faucet of cold water until they are completely soaked. Fan them out (don’t stack) on a plate and microwave about a minute, until they are soft. (At El Cafe, they were softened on the griddle in a pool of oil, but I can’t tell the difference in taste, and this way is easier and slightly lighter.) Take your chicken out of the fridge and chop it into bits the size you’d like to encounter in your enchilada. I like about 1/2-inch cubes.

Get four oven-safe oval dishes ("enchilada boats"). In a pinch, you could use flat-bottomed bowls or even plates, but avoid the temptation to place all your enchiladas in a single baking dish — you’ll end up with a gloppy mess. Ladle about a quarter-cup of the sauce in each boat, and spread to cover the bottom.

Now, assemble your enchiladas. Place a handful of chicken in a line on a tortilla. Cover with a mound of the grated cheese, and roll it up. You should have to smush it quite a bit to successfully roll it — if the enchilada rolls up easily, you haven’t used enough cheese. Turn the enchilada so that the closure is on the bottom and place in the boat. Don’t worry if it’s sort of falling apart, and don’t worry if one or two of your tortillas have gotten stuck together or completely fallen apart in the microwave — that’s why you started with ten, when you’re only making 8 enchiladas. Repeat the process, placing two enchiladas in each boat.

Now cover the enchiladas with a generous helping of sauce. Then mound even more cheese on top of that. Place the boats on an old cookie sheet to catch any drips, and bake at 450 for 11 to 13 minutes. When it’s ready, the cheese should be bubbling vigorously and maybe even a little brown on top. Yum!

It’s best to wait a few minutes to serve, but who can wait for that? It’s best with spanish rice and plenty of sour cream. At El Cafe, they were served with rice and either sauteed vegetables or vegetarian refried beans. I always thought the beans were terrible — really, you’ve got to use lard to make good beans, so just go with the veggies, or rice on its own.

Serves 4

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7 Responses to El Cafe-style enchiladas

  1. Teri says:

    Thanks for giving us the recipe. My husband and I can’t wait to try it out. We loved that place!

  2. Pat says:

    Damn tasty!

  3. John says:

    H Dave- I cannot beleive I finally found a mention of El Cafe… finally. You worked there? I used to go there almost ever day for breakfast during the summer of ’84. The thing I have been trying to find out since the late eighties as I left the Seattle area while in the Army for 8 years, was how to make the sauce they called: Cocimiento sauce? It was sort of thick, served hot, and spicey and thick. I poured it all over my breakfast enchilda and potatoes…. still would love to know how to make that.

    Can you help?



  4. Dave says:

    Hi John,

    I still occasionally make that sauce (or what I can recall from that sauce). Yum! I’ll see if I can reconstruct the recipe for you and post it here in a new post. If you went there during the summer of ’84 I think you probably were eating sauce made by me!

  5. Greta says:

    If that’s the sauce we put on the acorn squash stuffed with broccoli, raisins and walnuts, I know what I want for dinner…

  6. Larry Johnson says:

    This Blog doesn’t get much traffic, but as I was enjoying my Pollo Cocimiento El Cafe by myself this evening (my wife is out of town), I looked up El Cafe and found this site. I only cook this dish for myself or my a buddy since my wife (who actually recreated the dish) avoids sour cream and heavier dishes. I think she did a good job recreating the recipe about 15 years ago. I would enjoy hearing about who owned the El Cafe and whatever happened to them.

    Pollo Cocimiento El Cafe

    1 large Danish (acorn) squash
    1 chicken boneless breast, cut into ¾ inch pieces
    2 tsp. slivered almonds
    ¾ medium onion, chopped
    2 or 3 cloves garlic, chopped
    3 tblsp. olive oil
    ½ tsp. ground cumin
    ? tsp. ground coriander
    ? tsp. ground cloves
    ¼ cup raisins
    ¼ cup chicken stock
    1 tblsp. flour
    ? cup light sour cream
    ? tsp. ground caynne pepper
    1 ½ cup grated Muenster cheese

    Preheat oven to 350° F.

    Cut squash in half lengthwise, remove seeds, and place cut side down in oiled baking dish. Microwave for 15 minutes.

    On medium high in saute pan, saute almonds until golden brown. set aside.

    Saute onion and garlic in 1 tblsp. oil until soft. add chicken, cumin, coriander, and cloves. Saute until chicken is just brown, add raisins and stock. Reduce heat to low and simmer.

    Mix in bowl flour, sour cream, cayenne, and grated cheese. Add mixture to saute pan and cook uncovered for approximately five minutes.

    Stuff squash halves with mixture and top with almonds. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes until top is brown and bubbly.

  7. Patty says:

    ithought I WAS THE ONLY ONE; see other comment;i used sour cream and cheddar and garlic but did not get much further; i am making some squash as we speak and t ry ing to pull it off but not too successfully; tip yogurt even greek does not work..

    i am still in seattle and remember el cafe so fondly

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