El Azteco’s topopo salad still reigns supreme


If you’re a longtime resident of the area, especially if you grew up here like me, you probably already know all about topopo salad and are tired of hearing about it. However, for those of you who are new to the area or for whom those words ring nary a bell, hear me out.

El Azteco in East Lansing, with its rooftop seating area and central location, is a well-worn institution for many of us townies. Dining there with my family as a kid, I’d watch the fascinating and inspiring congregations of punks and beautiful weirdos through the windows, wondering if I’d ever be cool enough to join them. I would go there after many a day in high school, my best friend and I ordering two bean burritos, chips and salsa for less than $5, absolute perfection for the munchies. I also, like so many of us, briefly worked there. If this restaurant is a kingdom of Mexican food and memories, then the topopo salad is its signature dish and crown jewel.

What lies at the base of this absolutely huge salad is essentially nachos: a layer of toasty, rough-cut tortilla chips covered with layers of beans, melted cheese and guacamole. Atop this is a mountain of shredded lettuce, queso fresco, tomatoes, peas, green onions and shredded chicken, all tossed in a very light, bright vinaigrette that soaks into the chicken in the most delicious way. Even a half portion can be split between two people, and it’s a beautiful way to eat nachos and still get your servings of vegetables in.

An important element in all of this is the El Azteco salsa that you’ll want to dump all over everything. This salsa is unique and, though my judgment may be clouded by nostalgia, one of the best I’ve ever had. It has all the usual suspects ingredients-wise, but it’s blended into a homogeneous consistency. Because of this — and roasted tomatoes, I think? — the flavors of each component bleed into each other in a way that creates a slightly fermented and smoky flavor. Its spiciness seems to vary from batch to batch, but it never reaches an extreme — and those who are sensitive can extinguish the heat with El Az’s equally famous cheese dip.

The topopo is a must-try for those who are unfamiliar, and if you’re over it, that’s understandable — it just probably means you’ve eaten it too many times because you once loved it that much.




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