EAST LANSING REWIND: EL Azteco, Topopo, Cheese Dip and Memories
More than seven years ago, I wrote an online essay about El Azteco, in East Lansing. At the time, I thought only to share recipes, and to capture a bit of my history, and the history of the City. The restaurant has been in East Lansing in one form or another since 1976, and it seems fair to call it a local institution.
That post is reproduced below is, mostly as it originally appeared. It has been lightly edited for ELi non-editorial style. I also changed it a bit in response to an e-mail from a former employee who was adamant that (a) she was giving me the real recipe for the cheese dip and that (b) neither her name nor the name of her source could ever be revealed in a public forum. This is serious business.
Most interesting, and most indicative of the extent to which El Azteco is an essential part of East Lansing’s past and present, is the fact that over the years the original post has received 127 comments. The most recent comment was posted only last week. The commenters are from all over the country. Some writers are thanking me for the recipes, some are remembering good times during their time at MSU, and several former El Azteco employees are adding (conflicting) information about the precise ingredients of El Azteco Cheese Dip.
To unveil the real recipes would exceed my sleuthing skills. Besides, in my opinion, it’s better to wait until the rooftop opens up and have your cheese dip there with an adult beverage. In the meantime, I take you back to the original El Az:
There is a restaurant near our house called “El Azteco,” that has been in this town, in one incarnation or other, since I was in elementary school. Suffice it to say that I have not been in elementary school since Richard Nixon was in the White House.
When I was in high school and college, “El Az” as it is called by us hip natives, was located in a basement. Since we live in a large college town, the lines to get in on cheap Margarita night frequently snaked up the stairs and onto the street. Aside from the Margaritas, there was a full menu of “New Mexican” food including burritos, enchiladas, enchiladas, and flautas. Nothing was fancy (except maybe the Blue Corn Enchiladas and the Enchiladas de Jocoque), the cups were red pebbled plastic, and the floor was always a little sticky. The radio was usually tuned to the All-Janis-and-Jimi-all-the-time station. It seemed very glamorous to me when I was in high school because smoking was still allowed, and there were people in the dark, tall wooden booths smoking clove cigarettes and drinking. When I was older, and worked in town, I was grateful for a place to have a filling lunch (always a bean burrito and water with ice) that cost less than $2.00 with a tip.
Several years ago, the restaurant moved to an above-ground location within 20 feet of the old spot, and gained a roof deck where I can now legally enjoy a Margarita (but no clove cigarettes) and a cheap meal on a warm summer evening. It has become for us a favorite spot to meet friends, particularly in summer when there are often live performers on the plaza outside. The cups are the same, the menu is the same, and the food is still good in the same unpretentious way it always was. There is still a sort of 70s vibe, and I have yet to hear a syllable sung by Justin or Jessica while digging in to my chips and Dos Equis.
My favorite things to eat there are the Cheese Dip and the Topopo Salad. Although I still have a special place in my heart for the thousands of bean burritos that allowed me to save money for more important things, I am now generally able to afford “the higher priced spread.” I have the real recipe (I think) for the Cheese Dip, given to me by a reader, after she swore me to secrecy. She got it from a former El Ez employee who (you guessed it) swore her to secrecy. I am guessing on the precise recipe for the Topopo (although “precise” in the context of El Azteco is a somewhat surreal concept), but I have eaten enough of the giant nachos-cum-salads that I think I can make a good guess. Please to enjoy:
El Azteco Cheese Dip - Maybe
16 oz. sour cream
16 oz. cottage cheese [Note: if using a very dry cottage cheese, you may need to reduce the amount of Monterey Jack Cheese in order to get a sufficiently moist dip].
16 oz. shredded Monterey Jack Cheese
1 dash Worcestershire’s sauce
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 bag Lipton onion soup mix minus the dried onions (you’ll end up with just under 2 teaspoons of the spices)
3 minced jalapenos minus the seeds
1 and 1/2 bunches of scallions chopped.
Mix the sour cream, cottage cheese and add Worcestershire sauce, garlic powder, and onion soup mix. Stir.
Add the vegetables and the Monterey Jack cheese.
Refrigerate at least 2 hours; overnight is best.
1 head iceberg lettuce, shredded or cut into small pieces
1/2 cup canola oil
1/4 cup rice vinegar or distilled white vinegar
1/2 teaspoon sugar
16 0z. bottle prepared salsa
8 ounces frozen peas, thawed
1 cup finely shredded, white Mexican cheese (Queso Blanco)
2 ripe tomatoes, diced
1 bunch green onions, finely chopped
1 -2 jalapenos, finely chopped (Note: how many jalapenos, and whether or not you seed them will determine how spicy your Topopo is. One seeded jalapeno will have a nice flavor with a bit of zing; 2 unseeded jalapenos will be noticeably hot. I like 1, unseeded).
2 cups shredded cheddar or Monterey Jack cheese
2 cups guacamole (purchased or homemade)
2 cups finely shredded, cooked chicken (I often leave this out and go “veggie)
2 cans refried beans
“Topopo” means volcano, and as prepared at El Azteco, this is a HUGE salad for two people. You may, of course, choose to spread the ingredients over several plates.
First, mix lettuce, peas, white cheese, chicken, jalapenos, green onions and tomatoes in a large bowl. In a jar or bowl mix canola, rice vinegar and sugar to create a vinaigrette dressing. Add a small (!) amount of vinaigrette, no more than 1/4 cup to salad mixture. You are not really “dressing” this, just holding it together and adding a bit of flavor). Mix again to coat very lightly with vinaigrette. You may decide that you want to use more dressing next time, but you really don’t want it to be more than a hint of background flavor and a binder for the salad ingredients.
Warm refried beans in microwave or on top of the stove.
On the bottom of a large plate, place a hearty layer of tortilla chips. Warm refried beans and layer evenly over chips. Top with cheddar or jack cheese and run under the broiler to melt. Top melted cheese with guacamole spread evenly, and then a cup of the salsa.
A true Topopo is presented with the salad on top of the nacho base in a pyramid. (You remember: the whole volcano thing). Begin piling your salad mixture on top of the nachos to cover completely, gradually adding less and less as you build upwards to form a pyramid. Serve with additional salsa on the side.
Portions of this originally appeared on Forest Street Kitchen.