Mexican tortilla soup guided by tradition

Tortilla soup “is the soup everyone wants,’’ says Esther Marin, chef-owner of Cilantro, a Mexican fusion restaurant in Salem. Tortilla soup “is the soup everyone wants,’’ says Esther Marin, chef-owner of Cilantro, a Mexican fusion restaurant in Salem. (Steven S. Ross for The Boston Globe)
By Rachel Ellner
Globe Correspondent / May 5, 2010

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SALEM — Distinctly Mexican tortilla soup can hold its own in the pantheon of great chicken soups. Made with chicken broth, tomatoes, chili peppers, cheese, and a piñata full of garnishes, it spans an entire keyboard of flavors.

Chilies can range from jalapeno to chipotle, ancho, and habanero — and that’s the short list. All tortilla soups feature a nest of crispy tortilla strips that bring together the flavors and accompaniments, which can include cilantro, avocado, shredded chicken, and sour cream.

“This is the soup everyone wants,’’ says Esther Marin, chef-owner of Cilantro, a Mexican fusion restaurant here. Marin was born in San Luis Potosi, near Mexico City. She’s had other soups on the menu that show off the fuller range of the cuisine. But customers want this one.

“Let’s put it this way,’’ says Jaime Mora, part owner of Jalapeños Mexican restaurant in Gloucester, “I have a customer who told me, ‘If you ever hear that I’m dying, just remember the last thing I want to eat before I die is tortilla soup.’

“It’s a nicely balanced soup that’s not crazy spicy,’’ says Mora, who favors a comparatively mild chipotle chili that’s added to the stock early in the preparation.

Marin adds habanero sauce at the end to adjust the heat to diners’ requests.

“Customers think the food has to be spicy. But in Mexico, as here, it’s prepared as hot as you want it,’’ says Marin. “That food isn’t always spicy hot. Poblanos, you either like them or not. If you don’t it’s OK.’’

Cilantro features food made in small batches. The stove’s burners are often crowded with pots of tortilla soup started at different times, Marin says.

The restaurateur earned her culinary degree in Mexico City and has studied with several chefs. She’s also a certified public accountant and has an MBA. But for her tortilla soup she goes right back to mama. “My mother’s the one who inspired me. In Mexico, before you start walking, it’s the mothers who teach you.’’

But she has adapted the soup she learned at home. “Our mother put the peppers in the middle of the table. She was pretty traditional. She added a lot of dried herbs, cilantro, and epazote when the broth was boiling.’’

Marin’s approach is one common to central Mexico. In northern Mexico “it’s more spicy Tex-Mex, and they use cumin.’’

Tortilla soup at La Siesta Restaurante in Winthrop comes closer to chicken vegetable soup. Chef Elia Pizarro, from Nuevo Ideal, northwest of Mexico City, sautes zucchini, yellow squash, cilantro, and carrots in olive oil, cumin, and oregano before adding the mixture to chicken broth.

But most recipes feature ingredients common to tacos, burritos, and enchiladas. Yet a great tortilla soup far surpasses what one might imagine as disassembled taco parts and tortilla strips floating in chicken broth. “It’s all about the process,’’ says Pizarro, “going step by step, so the ingredients absorb the flavor of the condiments.’’

Customers respond to chicken soup. Marin says pregnant women come around asking for “spicy hot tortilla soup,’’ claiming it helps induce labor. It also comforts those with a cold or flu. Best of all it’s an entryway to a big meal, or the send-off to a siesta. Or, says Marin in a whisper, “good for a hangover.’’

Cilantro, 282 Derby St., Salem, 978-745-9436,

Jalapeños, 86 Main St.,Gloucester, 978-283-8228,

La Siesta Restaurante,70 Woodside Ave., Winthrop, 617-846-2300,