The traditions that feed us
Julia M. Dendinger | News-Bulletin photo
Customers love their enchiladas — flat, rolled or even in a casserole. The traditional entree at Rutillio’s in Belen is served without onions due to customer preference.
At their heart, enchiladas are three simple ingredients — warm, supple corn tortillas, hearty red chile and your shredded cheese of choice.
“My grandparents, my parents, anytime we made an enchilada, they were always flat,” said Rudy Jaramillo, owner of Rutillio’s in Belen.
Starting with that warm corn tortilla on a plate, red chile was added, then some cheese, then lettuce, tomatoes and onions, Jaramillo said, stringing the garnishing vegetables together as almost one word.
As a child, Jaramillo and his eight siblings built their enchiladas at the family table, sometimes topped with a fried egg, sometimes incorporating the egg within the layers. They never had any beans and rice on the side, he recalled. It was just the enchilada.
When he graduated from high school and began working in restaurants in Albuquerque, Jaramillo learned there was more than one way to make an enchilada.
“The owner told me they rolled them to make room for the beans and rice. We had to taste everything, so we would know what we were serving. He said they taste the same, but they really don’t.”
The critical difference for Jaramillo was having the garnish on the side, instead of incorporated into the dish.
At his restaurant, the tortillas are kept soft, warm and ready to roll using the customer’s filling of choice, Jaramillo said.
“They’re made to order. We don’t make them in advance.”
A typical order of enchiladas will come rolled, but if a customer asks, they can get a traditional flat stack, he said.
Growing up with the flat enchilada tradition, Jaramillo said a filling of some kind just wasn’t done, and it wasn’t until he began working in restaurants and dealing with rolled enchiladas that a filling — from chicken to beef to sour cream — was something he considered.
“It was weird to me to have a filling,” he said.
If the idea of fillings was weird, the concept of an enchilada casserole — which can be made with layers of flat tortillas, filling, chile and cheese, similar to a lasagna, or rolled enchiladas smothered in chile and cheese — was far from Jaramillo’s radar.
After contemplating where the idea of a casserole version of the traditional dish came from, Jaramillo said he felt like it was a “Midwestern thing.”
“We never had a casserole growing up. I think that it was more when you had a bigger family maybe, but we were a big family,” he said. “We were nine and my mother and father, so 11. We still never had it. My mother made them individual.”
Jaramillo saw casseroles more in restaurants and catering, picking up the technique in his own catering business after seeing a Socorro caterer serve enchilada casserole.
One variant of the casserole Jaramillo doesn’t seem to embrace is the cream sauce version, which is typically made with a condensed cream soup and green chile. When asked about its origins, he makes a face heavy with disapproval.
“I don’t know where that comes from. I don’t know that it’s a southern (New Mexico) thing because it’s even here. The green chile would make it soft anyway …”
He trails off, seemingly baffled by the dish.
While he doesn’t make them at home much anymore, Jaramillo is a deft hand at rolling up an order for himself at the restaurant.
“We have everything ready. You put your beans and rice, roll them, put the chile over. It’s quicker and, in business, those few seconds take a lot of extra time.”
Keeping in step with the state query — red or green — most restaurants, including Rutillio’s offers enchiladas with either red or green chile, or a combination of the two if you are so inclined. For Jaramillo though, there’s only one right way to eat an enchilada — red.
“Just talking about me, it’s the weirdest thing in the world for me,” he says of green chile enchiladas. “I cannot eat an enchilada that is not with red chile. Can’t do it.”
Other dishes can go either way, such as huevos rancheros, he said. Red or green are both good. Stuffed sopaipillas? Always green. Enchiladas are red. No exceptions.
As much of a die hard as Jaramillo is, he learned he needed to go with the flow when it came to local preference and traditions when he opened his own restaurant.
“When I opened the restaurant in Belen, enchiladas were always served with onions. The people of Belen do not like onions on their enchiladas,” he said. “If we sold 100 enchilada plates in a day, 99 of them would be sent back. ‘No onions.’
“And it strikes me as funny that an enchilada eater doesn’t want onions.”
Now you have to ask for them to be added.
At the end of the day, what is the key to a good enchilada? Is it the tortilla? The chile? The cheese?
“It’s just a good combination of all three of them, you know,” Jaramillo says. “Chile is always going to be a factor. If you go to Pete’s and have enchiladas there and you have enchiladas here, they’re going to be different, but you’re still gonna’ have an enchilada and you’re fine, right?”
Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.