Imprint of Topopo Salad in Southern Arizona and beyond

Not sure what a tobobo is? Explain lettuce.

Little known and rarely spotted outside of Tucson, topobo salad is one of the city’s major contributions to southern Arizona’s Mexican food lexicon—and almost certainly. Its exact origins as well as its unusual name remain a bit of a mystery.

As Sonoran-inspired entrees go, it’s exotic. Cubes of lettuce, onions, and tomatoes are layered in appearance atop tacos and in ceviches, small salads are a side dish like burritos and enchiladas, but the elaborate veggie creations rarely take center stage.

Topopo salad at Rosa’s Mexican Restaurant (Photo by Isaac Stockton)

Even locally, topopo retains a low profile. When I asked 93-year-old Abelita from my downtown neighborhood, a frequenter of local Mexican restaurants since the 1940s, about her favorite place in town to enjoy the dish, she said she had never heard of it. Many friends who moved to Tucson recently were the same Unschooled topopo.

But when I was interviewed in return for a brief description of the power, I was at a loss.

I went to the internet rabbit hole to try and get some answers.

If you search Google for “topopo” without adding any geo-search terms, the authority will appear in many of the recipes it is ascribed to. Aztecs, restaurant in Lansing, Michigan as an exporter. Topopo’s restaurant menu is described as follows:

“Mount Salad! The Mexican counterpart of the American Chef’s Salad with lettuce, tomatoes, chicken, cheese, jalapenos, peas, and green onions. Served on a bed of tortilla chips with frigoles, melted cheese and guacamole.

Sounds like nachos in a healthy kick.

Topopo salad at Mosaique Café in Teresa

Topopo salad at the Mosaic Café in Teresa (Photo by Eddie Jarolem)

One Lansing restaurant reviewer had some thoughts on the salad’s unusual name:

Topo, in Spanish, means ‘big lump’. “… El Azteco’s Topopo salad sure qualifies. This entrance truly is a huge, monstrous, monstrous heap of mouth-watering splendor.”

I was not able to verify the stated definition of the word “topo” in my own Spanish language research. Various Spanish-English dictionaries define him as “a mole” – as in a small furry animal or a spy – or, alternatively, as “a whimsical, stuttering, eccentric person”. I discovered no big blocks. It occurred to me that the journalist might have been confusing “topo” with “top,” the sometimes horrible speed bumps in Mexico.

This made me more skeptical than I already was about any claim of the dish’s Midwestern origin. Chef/blogger for Anita’s Table Talk, who is a resident of Lansing, had doubts about her attribution and did some digging. Results:

“It turns out that California-based Sunset Magazine published a cookbook in the early 1970s that included not only topobo but some other favorite recipes on the El Azteco menu. A former employee at Al-Azhar University said the cookbook was hidden under a restaurant table to take back.” mechanism “.

Topopo Salad at Guillermo's Double L

Topopo salad at Guillermo’s Double L (Photo by Eddie Jarolem)

Being an East Coast transplant, I didn’t know, as a friend told me, “There was a time when every self-respecting middle-class cook in the West owned a selection of sunset’Cookbooks. “So it was easy for me to borrow a copy of Mexican Sunset Cookbook in the city.

Like El Azteco, the cookbook describes Topopo as “an analogue of our chef’s hearty salad,” but adds that it “takes the most dramatic shape of a mountain or volcano,” and that it is “typical of the cuisine shared by residents of northern Sonora and neighboring Arizona.”

This is a large area of ​​land. But adding “Southern Arizona” or “Sonora” to my Google search bar yielded no results. Phoenix and Scottsdale? hardly a flash. Only when I included “Tucson” in the mix did I hit the jackpot, with an abundance of entries for restaurants across town.

topopo salad

Photo by Jackie Albers, featured in the cookbook “A Taste of Towson”

But this still left open questions about the origin of the power, its name and its distinctive properties.

Mountain elevation, and in some cases, volcanism, remained a common denominator in many local descriptions. Jackie Albersan award-winning photographer who created an impressive version of the dish for her illustrations Taste of Tucson The following cookbook was written as an introduction to the recipe:

“I’ve heard various stories explaining why Tucson’s most famous salad is prepared to look like a volcano. One of the original stories is that Tucson is surrounded by mountains, the most famous of which is Ranger Peak, also known as Mount A, which is often confused with a small volcano. It is not. But it was formed from lava from a volcano that erupted near there 25 million years ago and solidified into black volcanic rock.In fact, the name Tucson translates to “at the foot of the Black Mountain.”

Tobobo salad at El Charro Cafe

Image courtesy of El Charro Cafe on Facebook

No doubt one of the “different stories” that Albers alludes to comes from Sharoo Cafecelebrates its centenary in 2022. In The El Charro . cookbookthe authors Jean and Michael Stern quotes Carlota Floreswho claims her aunt Monica Flynn is the creator of Topopo:

“Topopo is an Indian word meaning volcano. Family history says so [Monica Flin] He was inspired to create the mega meal after gazing at the Popocatépetl volcano outside Mexico City.”

Recently seen on Bravo top chefCarlota is a culinary superstar, so I respectfully and sadly admit that I haven’t found any volcanic source for the word “topupo” in any Indian language.

She identified an Indian word that was similar to topopo, however, a word that only required one letter replacement to fit the bill: totopo.

According to Wikipedia:

The name totopo comes from the Aztec (or Nahuatl) word totopochtli, meaning ‘something that is roasted or something that grinds when eaten’, from the verb totopza ‘to crunch or toast.’ To distinguish the word from other roasted things, sometimes the compound tlaxcaltotopochtli was used. , which means “roasted tortilla.” The compound word means, roughly, “a tortilla that makes a noise when chewed.”

Mole salad at El Cisne

Topopo Salad in El Cisnes (Photo by Isaac Stockton)

In Spanish, totubo is always defined as a tortilla chip or fried tortilla, and is often credited as the source of Nahuatl in dictionary listings.

The origination of the name spelling makes sense. Tobobo salads are almost always served on crunchy tortillas, whether they’re flat on tostadas, made in a layer of potato chips, or (sometimes) in a taco bowl. The definition has some local credibility: the crunchy base is the interpretation of the name it got many years ago Fountainwhere the samples were taken from the power for the first time.

The restaurant, which opened in 1959 and closed in 2014, was a favorite of the late Willard Scottthe itinerant weatherman “The Today Show” who, I’m told, stopped by La Fuente to get a topopo whenever he was in town and deemed unique to Tucson.

From my (limited) personal experience, I can also attest that it is very easy to confuse the spelling of an authority’s name. When texting friends to invite them to try the specialty with me, I would sometimes write “totopo”. But in speech, “topopo” tongue rolls much more easily than “totopo”.

Try to say each word three times in a row.

Of course, none of this addresses questions about which chef or restaurateur originally made the coupon and decided to use the name to create a crunchy salad—and in what year.

ouch. Hitting that brick wall is painful.

Topobo salad at El Sur

Topopo Salad in the South (Photo by Isaac Stockton)

So, what does topopo salad consist of?

Despite the possible origin of their name, fried corn tortillas do not dominate topopo salads as they serve dishes such as chilakiles or nachos. Alternatively, just a thin layer of foil or one tostada smeared with re-fried beans—again, a tiny presence—serves as a base for a salad tower.

Some ingredients are basic: iceberg lettuce (or sometimes romaine); shredded yellow cheese, generally cheddar; Tomatoes; green olive; jalapenos; avocado; For reasons that I have not yet identified, I thaw frozen vegetables, most often peas and carrots. Chilled shrimp, shredded chicken or turkey, and carne seca are the most common centerpieces, and a homemade sauce, rather than a salad dressing, is the usual accompaniment.

Mole salad at El Cisne

Topopo Salad in El Cisnes (Photo by Isaac Stockton)

However, recipe variations – especially the main protein – are not uncommon. Topopo may come with machaca, carne asada, cottage cheese, garlic shrimp, boiled eggs, or even chile con carne, which is used by the Tex-Mex interloper. Avocados may appear in a stack of guacamole, not in slices. Presentations also vary. Although you will find many shapes and conical ridges, some of the topis are sunken in bowls. Some of these bowls are made of crunchy tortillas and look suspiciously like tacos – others Dakhil Tex-Mex.

I know I know. Just as few dishes can be traced back to a single source, there are no pure recipes in Southern Arizona. Cross is king, and incorporating other influences is essential to keeping the traditions fresh. Having said that, I don’t want to give Yelp! Reviewers have no excuse to dub our local Tex-Mex fare, as they often do.

Which brings me back to the impossibility of giving a brief but accurate description of the topopo.

Having done my due diligence, I feel at ease when I say, “I originated in Sonora and have long been popular in Tucson, where they are now found in Mexican restaurants around town, a tobobo is a main salad generally stacked on top of a tostada or a thin layer of tortilla chips. – sometimes in the form of a volcano – spread with fried beans.”

Unless you live in Topeka, Kansas.

The top appears in the Urban Dictionary as “Members of the Topeka Police Department” with the caption “It’s Tobobo!”

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