How to Transform Your Leftovers Into Stellar Chilaquiles

Got extra tortillas or rotisserie chicken on hand? This versatile dish makes those bits and bobs into fantastic comfort food.
Two plates of chilaquiles topped with fried eggs avocado and crema.
Photo by Joseph De Leo, Food Styling by Susan Ottaviano and Stevie Stewart

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My mom claims to hate chilaquiles. This doesn’t happen often, so it gives me great joy to declare here and now that she is wrong. What she actually hates are mushy, oversaturated chilaquiles. But the best chilaquiles perfectly straddle the line between soft and crunchy. The chips have had a moment to absorb some of the warm chile-packed sauce but still retain some of their bite. And that’s the joy of making chilaquiles yourself—you can control the level of crunchiness and customize them to your precious little heart’s delight.

Chilaquiles are one of my favorite things to eat after an exhausting day of writing when my brain is mush or when I wake up hungry (and maybe slightly hungover) on weekends. They’re also an excellent way to dress up leftovers. The foundation is simple: just salsa roja (or verde, for chilaquiles verdes) and tortilla chips. Because the base is just two ingredients, the best version of this dish features the very best versions of both—I recommend my recipe for Salsa Roja, and making your own chips from scratch (but if you have to go store-bought, you’ll find tips below for doing it right).

Once your base is figured out, you can top your chilaquiles with fried eggs, shredded chicken, carnitas, chorizo, cotija cheese, sliced avocado, Mexican crema, or whatever else you like. Read on to learn everything you need to know about making this classic comfort dish at home.

What can I use for the chilaquiles sauce?

The sauce in a batch of chilaquiles is everything. Well, almost everything. The chips play a pretty big role too, but more on those later. The salsa, whether you’re making chilaquiles rojas or verdes, should be complex and flavorful. Homemade salsa roja is the best option and is fairly easy to make. The best salsa rojas I’ve had are always made with a blend of multiple types of mild peppers, like ancho, guajillo, and pasilla, each bringing their own personality to the party. My recipe uses all three of those dried peppers, plus fresh serrano peppers for just a touch of heat and freshness, tomatoes, garlic, onion, lime juice, cumin, and cinnamon.

Anchos are slightly sweet, fruity, and smoky—that smokiness gets an extra boost from the cumin. Pasillas are a bit less sweet than anchos, but heavier on the fruit flavors. When you can open the bag, you get a whiff of raisin, which adds a layer of earthy fruitiness to the mix. Finally, guajillos, my favorite dried chile, are the sweetest of the three, with an almost berry-like flavor. Blending these three peppers with the other salsa roja ingredients yields a rich sauce that’s heavy on flavor, light on heat, and hard to match with anything from a jar.

Dried Chile Peppers 3 Pack Bundle

I like using just a touch of cinnamon in almost all of my pepper-based sauces because it accentuates the natural fruitiness and sweetness of the dried peppers for a more complex, flavor overall. And while you’re at it, consider making a double batch. Use half the sauce to make enchiladas one night, and the other half to make chilaquiles the next night, or vice-versa. If you do decide to make your own salsa roja, you can prep it up to five days in advance—45 minutes of effort can yield the base for days and days of meals.

Let’s be honest, though. As much as I love making my own salsa roja, time is not always on my side. If you find yourself in need of chilaquiles but lack the time to make your own sauce, there are some tasty store-bought options. I’m a fan of Saucy Lips Red Enchilada Sauce and Frontera Red Chile Enchilada Sauce.

Saucy Lips Red Enchilada Sauce

Frontera Sang Pouch Enchilada

Do I have to fry my own chips?

Look, I’m not the chip police—the academy deemed me too much of a loose cannon—so I have no authority to clock anyone for opting out of frying their own chips. But it is worth doing, especially if you have some leftover tortillas you’d otherwise be tossing. Besides, if you’re just cooking for one or two people, it doesn’t necessarily make sense to go out and buy a whole bag of chips for this recipe.

On the other hand, I personally don’t love deep frying in my kitchen because it can make my place smell like a state fair for a couple of days. So, no, you absolutely don’t have to fry your own chips. But someone, not a machine in a factory, should be making those chips.

I’m lucky enough to live around the corner from an excellent Mexican restaurant, Corazón de Frida, and they’re always happy to sell me sacks of their homemade chips. Fresh and sturdy chips made from real tortillas will always be the best option for chilaquiles, because they can absorb the salsa without falling apart. Whole Foods also sells fresh-style tortilla chips, which are fine in a pinch, but homemade or restaurant-made chips are your best option.

What can I put on my chilaquiles??

Chilaquiles are versatile—once you’ve tossed your chips and salsa together, you can really top them with whatever you like. I love to make them for breakfast, topped with some fried eggs and cotija cheese. For dinner, some leftover roasted or grilled chicken, shredded or chopped, is a primo protein. Sometimes I’ll just buy a rotisserie chicken from the grocery store expressly for topping my chilaquiles.

Got some carnitas leftover from that taco party? Throw them on your chilaquiles. That half a pack of sliced mushrooms? Sauté them and add them to the mix. That last avocado? Slice it and throw it on top. There are no wrong answers here. If you’re not sure if it’ll go well in the chilaquiles, dunk a small amount in the salsa roja and give it a taste. If it slays, it plays.