In Milwaukee, Mexican restaurants run the gamut from casual taquerias and family-run cantinas to swanky lounges that serve high-end fusion fare. But whether you’re in the mood for the authentic Guadalajaran dishes served at Botanas Restaurant—frequently voted one of the best restaurants in Milwaukee—or you’re hankering for the sustainable, vegan-friendly Michoacán cooking at Café Corazón, one item is sure to be on the menu wherever you go: tortilla chips.
Modern tortilla chips first became popular in the 1940s, when, according to legend, a tortilla-factory owner named Rebecca Carranza decided to try frying a batch of malformed tortillas. However, researchers have found advertisements for tortilla-chip sales dating back to the 1930s, so the exact origins of the chip remain a delicious mystery. Regardless of their exact history, the tortilla chip eventually became a cornerstone of Mexican American cuisine.
These versatile, lightly salted crisps can take many forms: light and airy or thick and crunchy, blue or yellow, round or triangular, baked or fried. They can be smothered in melted chihuahua cheese, fresh avocado, and jalapeño salad, like the nachos at El Senorial. Alternatively, they may lay the foundation for a hearty breakfast, as is the case with El Canaveral’s chilaquiles, which are topped with eggs and green-chili sauce.
However the chips are served, they all begin with a canonical preparation. Chefs must first cook corn in water with ash or quicklime, then grind the mixture to produce a substance called masa. The texture of a chip can be more distinctive than the rush of salt and starch on your tongue. Tortillerias and industrial manufacturers carefully engineer the density of chips, the number of air pockets they contain, and their overall texture profile.