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An Unforgettable Quesadilla

February 6, 2014

What does it take to make a quesadilla exciting?

We should probably start by saying that this ubiquitous Mexican dish comes in many forms. The most common is in some ways very much like a crappy grilled cheese sandwich. I say crappy because it’s missing the butter toasted bread, which is a critical part to the glory of this great American staple. But quesadillas can be made from corn tortillas, flour tortillas or even a masa dough. They can be cooked a variety of ways, with a variety of fillings, and the cheese can be on the inside or the outside. It’s true.

The way some places try to make it exciting is by mixing up the flavor of the tortilla, filling it with unusual ingredients, and topping it with special sauces. I salute their creativity. But it doesn’t address some of the fundamental flaws of the generic quesadilla.

There is one quesadilla that stole my heart a long time ago. And fortunately, I’ve never seen anything quite like it since, because this is one of those insanely delicious things that could kill you if you made it a regular part of your diet.

Luckily, when I made it a regular part of my diet, I was a much younger man.

“Let’s go to El Gran!” I would say around lunch time. This was a small, dirty and inexpensive taqueria on the border of San Francisco’s North Beach. It’s gone now. Usually, my coworkers would groan that they didn’t want to spend the rest of the afternoon in a food coma.

But when my desire was hot, I would go with or without them. And everyone knew there was really only one thing to get. That doesn’t mean that everyone had the gumption to order it.

Today, I’m going to tell you about the El Gran quesadilla suiza con carnitas.

Few dishes could be more simple. It started off as a large flour tortilla, and it was steamed as if it would be transformed into a burrito. Then like a burrito, it was filled with chopped pork braised in its own fat, two fistfulls of thickly shredded white cheese, and a bit of pico de gallo. It was even rolled like a burrito on the line.

However, upon being rolled, it was whisked away to the griddle in the back where the flattop was greased up and this tube of meat, cheese, onions and tomatoes was seared on both sides.

This step transformed the quesadilla in a few meaningful ways.

Most obviously it created a splendid maillard reaction on both sides of the quesadilla. Beyond flavor, it added a crisp texture to the tender tortilla. And while it may not be butter toasted sandwich bread, it was pretty darn decadent.

Naturally, on the inside it melted all of that cheese. But in this pressed tubular preparation the cheese wasn’t merely a binding agent, but a star player. It was smooth melting, and added a gooey contrast to the crisp exterior.

But the magic was in the interplay of the pork and the pico. Because inside this floury shell, as the carnitas was heated, some of its succulent pork fat was rendering out and actually cooking the raw onions strewn throughout the quesadilla. Tomatoes that were typically hard and uninspiring, would soften and provide a bit of juicy acidity.

Still, none of this would have worked had it not been for the strength of their house made carnitas. Even without being grilled into a quesadilla suiza, they were crusty on the outside with a tender, succulent, and meaty chew.

When combined with the crisp, almost fried tortilla, the avalanche of melted cheese, and the pork fat softened pico, this was a thing of glory.

Yes, when you were done eating it, the idea of a siesta made a whole lot of sense. Yes, your fingers would be shiny with oil from the moment you picked the thing up in your hot and greedy hands. Yes, every bite surely took a minute off the end of your life.

I regret nothing.

So if I happen to be not so impressed with your favorite local quesadilla, now perhaps you understand. I’ve been spoiled. As a result, most quesadillas fail to excite me, regardless of their bells and whistles.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Debra permalink
    February 6, 2014 12:17 pm

    And now, I want to make/eat one of those. Sounds so tasty.

  2. Mike permalink
    February 6, 2014 12:23 pm

    Maybe that is where taco bell got the idea for their “grilled stuffed burrito”? (which I am somewhat ashamed to admit I have eaten)

  3. February 6, 2014 8:50 pm

    Nice picture of the food and the experience. I want one now.

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