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Mexican Cheese Dip and Topopo Salad

There is a restaurant near our house called “El Azteco,” that has been in this town, in one incarnation or other, since I was in elementary school. Suffice it to say that I have not been in elementary school since Richard Nixon was in the White House.

When I was in high school and college, “El Az” as it is called by us hip natives, was located in a basement. Since we live in a large college town, the lines to get in on cheap Margarita night frequently snaked up the stairs and onto the street. Aside from the Margaritas, there was a full menu of “New Mexican” food including burritos, enchiladas, enchiladas, and flautas. Nothing was fancy (except maybe the Blue Corn Enchiladas and the Enchiladas de Jocoque which are splendid), the cups were red pebbled plastic, and the floor was always a little sticky. The radio was usually tuned to the All-Janis-and-Jimi-all-the-time station. It seemed very glamorous to me when I was in high school because smoking was still allowed, and there were people in the dark, tall wooden booths smoking clove cigarettes and drinking. When I was older, and worked in town, I was grateful for a place to have a filling lunch (always a bean burrito and water with ice) that cost less than $2.00 with a tip.

Several years ago, the restaurant moved to an above-ground location within 20 feet of the old spot, and gained a roof deck where I can now legally enjoy a Margarita (but no clove cigarettes) and a cheap meal on a warm summer evening. It is also a favorite spot to meet friends, particularly at this time of year when there are often live performers on the plaza outside. The cups are the same, the menu is the same, and the food is still good in the same unpretentious way it always was. There is still a sort of 70s vibe, and I have yet to hear a syllable sung by Justin or Jessica while digging in to my chips and Dos Equis.

My favorite things to eat there are the Cheese Dip and the Topopo Salad. Although I still have a special place in my heart for the thousands of bean burritos that allowed me to save money for more important things, I am now generally able to afford “the higher priced spread.” I have the real recipe (I think) for the Cheese Dip, given to me by my a reader, after she swore me to secrecy. She got it from a former El Ez employee who (you guessed it) swore her to secrecy. This is a big deal. I am guessing on the precise recipe for the Topopo (although “precise” in the context of El Azteco is a somewhat surreal concept), but I have eaten enough of the giant nachos- cum-salads that I think I can make a good guess. Please to enjoy:

El Azteco Cheese Dip

  1. 16 oz sour cream
  2. 16 oz cottage cheese [Note: if using a very dry cottage cheese, you may need to reduce the amount of Monterey Jack Cheese in order to get a sufficiently moist dip].
  3. 16 oz shredded Monterey Jack Cheese
  4. one dash Worcestershires sauce
  5. 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  6. 1/2 bag lipton onion soup mix minus the dried onions (you’ll end up with just under 2 teaspoons of the spices)
  7. 3 minced jalapenos minus the seeds
  8. 1 and 1/2 bunches of scallions chopped.

Mix the sour cream, cottage cheese and add Worcersterhire sauce, garlic powder, and onion soup mix. Stir.

Add the vegesrables and the Monterey Jack cheese.

Refrigerate at least 2 hours; overnight is best.

topopo-3.jpg

Topopo Salad – Or Very Close To It

  1. 1 head iceberg lettuce, shredded or cut into small pieces
  2. 1/2 cup canola oil
  3. 1/4 cup rice vinegar or distilled white vinegar
  4. 1/2 teaspoon sugar
  5. 16 0z. bottle Prepared salsa
  6. 8 ounces frozen peas, thawed
  7. 1 cup finely shredded, white Mexican cheese (Queso Blanco)
  8. 2 ripe tomatoes, diced
  9. 1 bunch green onions, finely chopped
  10. 1 -2 jalapenos, finely chopped (Note: how many jalapenos, and whether or not you seed them will determine how spicy your Topopo is. One seeded jalapeno will have a nice flavor with a bit of zing; 2 unseeded jalapenos will be noticeably hot. I like 1, unseeded).
  11. Tortilla chips
  12. 2 cups shredded cheddar or Monterey Jack cheese
  13. 2 cups guacamole (purchased or homemade)
  14. 2 cups finely shredded, cooked chicken (I often leave this out and go “veggie)
  15. 2 cans refried beans

“Topopo” means volcano, and as prepared at El Azteco, this is a HUGE salad for two people. You may, of course, choose to spread the ingredients over several plates.

First, mix lettuce, peas, white cheese, chicken, jalapenos, green onions and tomatoes in a large bowl. In a jar ow bowl mix canola, rice vinegar and sugar to create a vinaigrette dressing. Add a small (!) amount of vinaigrette, no more than 1/4 cup to salad mixture. You are not really “dressing” this, just holding it together and adding a bit of flavor). Mix again to coat very lightly with vinaigrette. You may decide that you want to use more dressing next time, but you really don’t want it to be more than a hint of background flavor and a binder for the salad ingredients.

Warm refried beans in microwave or on top of the stove.

On the bottom of a large plate, place a hearty layer of tortilla chips. Warm refried beans and layer evenly over chips. Top with cheddar or jack cheese and run under the broiler to melt. Top melted cheese with guacamole spread evenly, and then a cup of the of salsa.

A true Topopo is presented with the salad on top of the nacho base in a pyramid. (You remember: the whole volcano thing). Begin piling your salad mixture on top of the nachos to cover completely, gradually adding less and less as you build upwards to form a pyramid. Serve with additional salsa on the side.

I am sure about everything here except the dressing on the salad part, which I will investigate further. In the meantime, this will still be pretty darned tasty. Edited to add: I have now checked with several Topopo-eating sources, all of whom agree that the dressing is a 2:1 oil to vinegar combo. One friend adds a squeeze of lime juice for more flavor. Thanks to Chris N. and Kristin B.B.!

topopo-2.jpg

About imagineannie

I am a 40-something Midwestern wife, mother and lawyer with a passion for cooking, reading about food, eating food...you get the picture.

123 responses »

  1. Pingback: Just a Picture of a Topopo… « Forest Street Kitchen

  2. Going to feast next week on the Topopo Salad. Haven’t had one of those in years. Thanks!

    Reply
  3. I’ve never heard of this dish, but I think I’ll have to try it. It looks wonderful. And cool!

    Reply
  4. Barbara,

    I hope you like it – I’ve been eating them at El Azteco since I was my son’s age (10) and I still order one every time I go!

    Thanks for visiting, by the way!

    Reply
    • man oh man– its been years– i grew up in the lansing area—— i was dreaming about a topopo salad and cheese dip– and low and behold here are the recipes!!!!!!!! yea!!!!!!

      Reply
  5. jennifer crane moss

    I always know when it is time to come home and visit my parents because I start dreaming about toppo salad-thanks for sharing it thrills my sister abby to no end to be in touch with you

    Reply
  6. Well, I wouldn’t mind being in touch with you as well as Abby – thanks for visiting, and maybe next time your home we can share a Topopo at El Azreco? (With Abby, of course).

    Reply
  7. I am an MSU grad and Lansing expat who made the dip for the first time a few weeks ago. I like your version a little bit better than the versions that appeared in the State Journal with munster.

    Beautiful pictures. If I ever have the guts to create the topopo salad i’ll definately use your version!

    Reply
  8. Jeff, I am still not satisfied with the dip – its close, and came from an “inside source,” but the texture is off and its missing something. It seems kind of wet to me; maybe I need drier cottage cheese. Maybe more onion, jalapeno and garlic powder. I am actually much happier with the Topopo, although I now think that the cheese may be Chihuahua instead of Monterey Jack. From looking at your blog (which is hilarious) I am guessing that you are perfectly capable of making a great Topopo your very own self.

    Reply
    • Hi i tried the cheese dip with 8 oz cream cheese and 8 oz sour cream….turned out great. I live in Grand Rapids now and miss the heck out of El Az…Thanks!

      Reply
  9. I stumbled on to your website in an effort to avoid other things and I am excited to try the Topopo Salad and cheese dip recipe. I used to live in Lansing and frequented both El Az’s whenever the taste for Mexican became to much to ignore.
    We now live in Traverse City and the Mexican restaurants have been a huge disappointment. Not that I am surprised, we’ve been spoiled by the best.

    Reply
  10. Michele, some of my best discoveries are made while avoiding other things, usually work. Traverse City isn’t that far – maybe you could make a road trip for some El Az? In the mean time, I hope you can make do with “homemade;” thanks for coming here instead of doing whatever you were avoiding!!

    Reply
  11. Mmmmm Al Azteco and margarita night, good times :)

    I live in Canada now, and as you can imagine, Mexican restaurants are few and far between here! I’ve been pining for a Topopo salad for years now… thanks for shaing this recipe. :)

    Kristine

    Reply
  12. Kristine, make yourself a Topopo and a batch of Margaritas and pretend you are on the roof of El Az on a summer night…enjoy!!

    Reply
  13. Does anyone have the recipe for El Az rice and the refried beans and maybe even the salsa? I live in NYC now, and I miss El Az food, believe it or not!

    Reply
  14. I heard from a former employee that the cheese dip has onion soup mix in it. FYI. (Lipton’s) Although, Wolfmoon, the old Food Coop that was on Michigan Ave., they made it too, but used the Frontier Onion soup mix. It was good too.

    Reply
    • I’ve never understood why some say it has onion soup mix in it. I worked in the kitchen (requirement as a waitress) and never, ever put onion soup mix in it.

      Here is my recipe:
      El Azteco Cheese Dip

      1 lb sour cream
      1 lb small curd cottage cheese
      1 lb muenster cheese
      2 small bunches green onion
      ¼ cup bottled, sliced jalapenos
      Worcestershire sauce

      Directions
      Finely grate muenster cheese using the smallest hole grate on your grater.

      Chop green onions ¾ of the way through the entire stalk (leaving the nasty ends of the green part out.) Including a lot of the green of the green onion gives the dip color and flavor.

      Combine sour cream, cottage cheese, grated muenster cheese, and chopped green onions in a large mixing bowl.

      Add 5-8 squirts of Worcestershire sauce.

      Finely chop about a ¼ cup of jalapenos (to taste – see what it tastes like after you mix them in and add more until it is the way you like it.) After the dip sits (refrigerated) it tends to get hotter and thicker – it’s always better the next day. I also add jalapeno juice from the jar to increase the heat.

      Makes a huge quantity that is enough to serve at a party with leftovers. Reduce ingredients accordingly for smaller batches.

      Reply
      • I worked there too. Onion soup mix was in it (onions sifted out) and fresh jalapeños. And Monterrey jack, not muenster. And garlic powder.

  15. Clare, I don’t have the recipe for the rice or beans, although I have a strong suspicion that the beans come out of a can. I’m not sure, amd hope not to be sued for libel, but the thought has occurred to me that they are good quality canned beans made with lard (which makes them very tasty). As for the onion soup mix, I have heard that rumor, but I don’t taste it in the dip at El Az. Its certainly worth trying – let me know if you make it that way and it tastes exactly right!

    Reply
    • the beans do come out of a can, as beans and then are pressure cooked for 3 hours in a 30 gallon pressure cooker… also i used to do orders at el az, they NEVER ordered or had jack cheese, only muenster. Also the onion soup mix is french onion, and is strained through cheese cloth.

      Reply
  16. Just had to say, I have made the cheese dip 3 times and it went over BIG! The first for a Christmas party we attended. (We used blue corn tortillas, mostly for the festive look but it really complemented the flavor of the dip.) People just devoured it! And being a Traverse City resident now I really didn’t expect anyone to really recognize it. I was wrong. A woman who had apparently lived in Lansing at one time as well told my friend it reminded her of the dip they used to order at El Az. (small world) The second and third time both went over with a bang too. That dip is incredibly good. I have lots of people asking for the recipe. Thanks so much for the little peice of El Az. We just love it. Happy New Year!

    Reply
  17. Michele, I’m so glad you’re loving the dip!! I have made a couple of adjustments from time to time (I am finding it really has to sit for as long as you can possibly let it, among other things, or it just tastes like salty cottage cheese) but we love it and I also take it to “bring a dish” things fairly often. The blue corn tortillas are probably great with it, I like to think of sharing the El Az wealth with Traverse City, although in all fairness, you really have much better places to eat than we do, in general. (I think). Happy New Year to you and yours, too!!

    Reply
  18. We do have lots of great places to eat but not too many mexican restaurants to choose from. When we first moved here we were constantly trying out new restaurants but unfortunatly that leads to a skinny pocketbook and tight jeans.

    I did make one change last time I made the dip. I used grated garlic from the jar instead of the powder. I had to check out food network to figure out the conversion but it came out good.
    I did let it sit in the frige and I agree, it’s like day old soup, just way better the second day. Of course that didn’t stop me from taste testing ahead of time.

    I will have to try out your other recipes as well.
    Enjoy your day.

    Reply
  19. Onion soup mix in cheese dip does not
    improve. I have heard adding
    cumin but also really adds
    nothing.

    Reply
  20. Laura, I haven’t really envisioned the dip with soup mix, although I’m open to hearing that its earth-shattering. I kind of like the fact that it tastes so un-chemical, in general. I definitely don’t taste cumin in the dip as made at El Az, or see it, for that matter. Thanks for visiting!

    Reply
  21. Although I live in london england now, i used to live in east lansing in 1990-91. I worked at el az for a good 6 months and your recipes are pretty spot on. Thanks for remonding me of that cheese dip. gonna make it soon. Your topopo salad is looks great. Only thing I’d say is anyone who doesnt make their own guacamole, well shame on you. It’s so easy and the store bought one always has preservs and sour cream in it which is a sin.

    I still make the “chile verde” sauce from el az which is the alternative to the red sauce for the enchiladas. I’ve tweeked it alittle by adding cilantro. Recipe follows.

    1 can campbells cream of mushroom soup.
    1 tub (same amount as soup) of sour cream
    3-6 finely chopped fresh jalepenos (do not use the jared pickled ones) use more for spicy, less for mild
    handful of finely chopped cilantro or corriander as they call it in england
    1 heaping tablespoon of cumin powder.
    a pinch of garlic powder
    a pinch of salt
    1-2 ounces of milk (to make less thick)

    Stir well. Use a dipping sauce or for spicy chicken enchiladas.

    Hope you enjo, i do at least once a month.

    Reply
  22. By the way, I remember the vinegar as being that slightlly pink one. Red wine vinegar maybe.

    Reply
    • I also worked at El Az for just a semester. The vinegar had some type of spice in it too. I cannot remember what spice… but I remember just a touch of something. Also, just as a note, there were pre-made baggies of spices that you used when creating the quac and the cheese dip. They never let the staff in on the exact mixture of those spices. Thanks for posting–my girlfriend in Boulder has been seeking a good remake for years!

      Reply
      • KK, I have a spy at El Az this summer who might be able to find out what the vinegar is, but I guess I’ll never know what the exact spices are in the cheese dip. My solution is just to keep ordering it under the guise of figuring out the recipe. Hope you and your girlfriend enjoy your Topopos!!

  23. James, thanks for visiting, and thans most especially for the chile verde sauce recipe – that’s what my husband gets on his burritos at El Az, and I can dazzle him by whipping it up at home. You know that I am dying of curiosity to find out how you went from working at El Az in East Lansing to spinning tunes in London…..

    Reply
  24. Hi All,

    I heard that the onion soup mix,if you use it, should be strained of the onions, just add the spices. FYI.

    Also, James, do you know the salsa or the rice recipe? I knew someone who worked there years ago and they said they did make the beans there, and they used a pressure cooker to make it faster. There was a person on “bean duty” , who did only that, make the beans. The menu claims they are vegetarian, but the rice has chicken stock in it. I liked El Az guac but they tried to charge a lot for it. Does anyone remember in the 90’s when lettuce got expensive for awhile, they were charging like $11 or $12 for a topopo salad?

    Reply
    • the onion soup mix is strained and only the spices put, taste to see how much you need. also, i used to make this all the time, and i swear it was equal parts SC, Cottage Ch. and white cheese. that, with the addition of the soup mix is the recipe.

      I know.

      Reply
  25. There guac recipe is easy.

    avocados
    fresh jalepenos diced fine
    white onions diced fine
    garlic powder
    salt

    Thes secret to there guac was that they pureed the avocados in a big huge industrial mixer (the kind bakers would mix dough in). They wiped it for a while so there is no lumps and it is really creamy. (you can achieve pretty close to that with a fork and some muscle) And they always put the ingredients in after it was wiped, and just stirred them in.

    I do still make my guac like el az, but i now add finely diced cilantro. Love it!

    Sorry I dont put measurements on, but i think cooking is all about making things to taste, they way you like it.

    As far as there salsa goes, I dont remember. But i do one that is simple and pretty authentic,

    can of diced tomatoes inj juice
    diced jalepenos
    diced white onion
    1 diced clove of garlic
    salt.

    you can add lime juice for a kick if you like.

    Thats it, leave chunky or blend if you like it less chunky.

    Anyone know how to make a red enchilada sauce?

    Reply
  26. The guy you knew that worked there that made the beans wasnt a white guy with coloured dredlocks was he?

    Will be in Michigan next week and will defintely be making my way to el az for a topopo and maybe a sample of the chile verde sauce to see if mine is close.

    Reply
  27. HI imagineannie,

    In response to your question, It was a long journey from East Lansing to London. I went to U of M for fouer years and did the BUNAC programme after that and then ended up staying in London. Needless to say I am moving back to America and then hopefully on to Spain where I would like to open my own bar or maybe possibly a mexican restuarant come late night dj bar. We’ll see?

    Reply
  28. James, if you keep passing on recipes, I’ll be able to open my own branch of El Az – El Ann’s? Seriously, thanks for the information; we love their guacamole too. I hope you have a good time here next week, and if you happen to come up with any more recipes. you know where I live (on the internet, anyway)….

    Clare, the guac is still pretty expensive; it always seems funny to me that its so expensive for a little plate of it, but that the price of things with tons of guac in them (like Topopos) tend to remain constant. I do remember the price increase when lettuce was scarce, but then I’m quite old.

    Reply
  29. Hi James,

    Thanks for the recipes. I am not sure about who the bean guy was at El Azteco. It was a long time ago. I worked with such a guy or 2 at Traveler’s Club, one was Geoff and the other Jason. That was my hang for a long time and I used to live in one of the apartments over the restaurant. I also worked at Hearthstone Veg restaurant if anyone remembers that.

    Reply
  30. I just ate at El Az last night–visiting the MSU area–I graduated 10 years ago. I have the topopo salad every time I go there because it is my fave! Thanks for the recipe! I will always remember Tuesday margarita special night with fondness!

    Reply
  31. Clare, we love the Traveler’s Club, and I remember Hearthstone, which is sorely missed. We live among the students in East Lansing, and there is house full of girls next door who currently work at The Travelers Club.

    Angela, there is still a Margarita here for you on Thursdays. Its not quite the same when you make it at home (no red plastic basket full of VERY crunchy chips) but its pretty darned good.

    Reply
  32. Okay, I made the topopo and I have to say, it was better than the topopo I had at El Az a couple of weeks ago! (I think they skimped on the guac.) I used olive oil as I didn’t have canola, and it tasted great. Thanks again, it was deluckinficious :)

    Next time, I’ll make margaritas too :)

    Kristine in Toronto :)

    Reply
  33. Kristine, I actually had one at El Az yesterday and it was both low on guac and kind of vinegar-y. I think I have come to like mine more than theirs, although I can’t re-create the atmosphere of the roof on a summer night….

    Reply
  34. How awesome, this is our favorite recipe, mine from college days, and I’ve converted my girlfirend. We’re going to have an El Az night at home with the kids. Thanks so much!
    Fike

    Reply
  35. Jeffrey, I’m so glad to help you have a little El Az wherever you are now! You are most welcome.

    Reply
  36. a reason the recipe may seem off is that El Az uses absolutely no fresh ingredients, and their primary cooking utensil is a very unsanitary microwave. Wait, the gaucamole dip is very fresh, they cut up the avacodos the same day. So try that ^^

    Reply
  37. Eric Williams

    Ann,
    Just found this post and reading it, I was overcome with such a strong wave of nostalgia, I’m kind of dizzy. El Az in the basement on Abbott road (right?) The nights (must’ve been hundreds) down there in those wooden booths eating nachos (I think I tried the topopo once)–best of times at MSU. I have been to the new location, but, not the same as that old firetrap. There is (or was) an El Azteco in Lansing proper, too. Wonder if it’s still there?

    Reply
  38. Eric, I miss the “original” El Az, too; even the sewage water being run out into the parking lot behind Bell’s Pizza, and waiting in the line going down the stairs on Margarita nights. I’m getting used to the new above-ground version after all these years, but I loved the old one. The location in Lansing is still there; its actually the “original.”

    Reply
  39. Oh, bless you!

    I was just thinking about how tomorrow was cinco de mayo and about what Mexican food to make for dinner, and I was thinking about how much I desperately missed El Az and the Topopop Salad; I live in Grand Rapids now and we have a severe shortage of outdoor restaurants, and certainly no El Az. Thanks for the recipe, the simple vinaigrette is really what makes it taste right.

    Reply
  40. imagineannie

    Kate, I’m glad you found the recipe! Its funny; I actually love visiting GR because there are so many interesting things to walk and see (plus I love the Grand), but I would still rather eat…here. You aren’t that far away, so come during the summer, get yourself a table on the roof, and indulge. Happy Cinco de Mayo!!

    Reply
  41. I just read on another site that there is indeed cumin, powdered garlic and lipton onion soup mix (but with the onions strained out – just the power that is left) And the cheese is munster not jack. Hope that helps.

    Reply
  42. Oh my gosh!

    I went to MSU (graduated in ’92) and one of thde many things I fondly remember has been just as you described….sticky floors, red pebble glasses, and noisy crowds in the smoky, dark, basement atmosphere of El Az…I have missed the Topopo Salad!!! I was talking about it the other day, and my mom said I should google it. I never imagined there would be not only a recipe online, but a vivid flashback suh as this. I live in Mississippi now, and will be throwing together a Topopo tomorrow for Mother’s Day. Glad to read that El Azteco still exists! thanks so much!

    Reply
  43. Hi-
    I may be coming to East Lansing in June so I might be in for some El Az action.

    One thing someone told me, whose brother worked at El Az, and this is a long time ago so things might have changed, but the vinegar they use in the topopo dressing is apple cider. Just an FYI if you want to try that.

    I remember back to the El Az lunch specials back in the late ’80’s, early ’90’s, and it was 3.65 for the enchilada lunch, including the desert when they remembered to bring it or ask you if you wanted it.

    Reply
  44. Kristin, I’m always glad to be of service! I am totally satisfied with my Topopo recipe (especially because I use “nicer” chicken and more guac) but I probably have to agree with other commenters that there is something saltier/spicier than I have in my recipe, like onion soup mix. I just don;t know if I can stand the idea of adding that kind of crud. El Az is different now that its “above ground,” but you’d still find the red pebbly gplastic glasses, and the food hasn’t changed.

    Clare, prices are waaaaaay up at El Az these days, but the service is a little better. Well, sometimes. U’ll def try cider vinegar next time, thanks!

    Reply
  45. Pingback: What’s For Dinner « Forest Street Kitchen

  46. Ann,
    I was searching for the cheese dip recipe online for a big family mexican night tonight and was thrilled to see that your site came up in my search. I am also going to try adding dry french onion soup mix, minus the onion, and will let you know how it turns out.
    See you in cyberspace!

    Reply
  47. Chris, I hope the Topopo was good – now that I know who you are, i know you can tell the difference between a REAL Topopo and an ersatz version. If you figure out the secret to the dip. please let me know…I’m getting kind of obessessed……

    Reply
  48. thank you for the cheese dip recipe! i have moved to the southwest and have missed my fav dip that i could’ve eaten every day (along with a bean burrito!) when in college :) can’t wait to try it out!!!

    Reply
  49. I have tried several “Dip” recipes for El Az but never one that called for Worcestershire sauce. Interesting – I’ll give it a try. Try using fresh garlic to replace the often dull garlic powder and if you would like to add a little heat to the dip without destroying your taste buds, add a few drops of tabasco or other hot sauce. It won’t alter the appearance and gently warms the palate. I have three restaurants in Los Angeles and will be opening a Tex-Mex joint soon — if I must, I’ll hire laboratory to dissect El Az’s dip to uncover the secret. http://www.petescafe.com

    Reply
  50. We were just at El Azteco today and am so happy to have found the recipe for the cheese dip!! I live in South Carolina and it is a long haul to East Lansing!

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  51. Glad I googled “Topopo Salad” while I was hankering for an El Azteco fix. It has been about 15 years since I was back there and I still do not lose the craving. This page was like an oasis. I guess misery loves company. To those who are in E.L. or can get there by a short jaunt—-you are envied (I live in the southern tier of New York State). It helps to have the pictures and the recipes to make wherever one is located. For a while it was pretty dry with no mention of any of the recipes on the web. Keep up the great exchanges of your enthusiasm for such a diamond in the rough! It’s comfort food for thought!!!!!!

    Reply
  52. Shelley, I’m so glad you find the recipe helpful! If you don;t love it the first time, try it with some of the suggestions made by other commenters and let me know what version you like best – I am hoping to perfect it one of these days.

    Peter, your suggestions are fabulous. Honestly, I don’t usually even have garlic powder in the house because I consider it to be an abomination. I looked at the site for your restaurants and it’s wonderful! I have a good friend in LA and he may be getting a visit soon just so that I can eat your food.

    Bridget, I’m glad the Topopo recipe helps keep good memories alive. As you know, this isn’t ,much of a restaurant town ,but El Az is sort of an historical landmark of local eating at this point. i am still a bit uncertain about my cheese dip recipe, although the person who gave it to me swore that it was the real deal, but I think my Topopo recipe is authentic, and maybe (dare I say) a little better. Enjoy!!

    Reply
  53. kelly, oops, I missed you! That would be a long way to go for dinner; now you can make at least part of an El Az dinner in South Carolina. Thanks for visiting the blog!

    Reply
  54. I was curious if people tried James’s recipe for Chile Verde and if so whether it was a good match. How did you spice the beef itself?

    Reply
  55. The menu say Muenster cheese not Monterey Jack Cheese. I had the real thing last night and this afternoon.

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  56. So excited to try your recipes. Thanks for the memories.

    Reply
  57. tman, I haven’t yet, but I’m thinking about it. Let me know if you try it, and what you decide.

    Oscar, you are correct.

    MSU graduate, you are most welcome. Eating El Az at home sin’t quite the same, but maybe you can find some of those red plastic cups and store your leftovers between two plates ….

    Reply
  58. Pingback: What’s For Dinner? « Forest Street Kitchen

  59. Hi! I used to work at El Azteco back when it was in the basement (1987-89). My favorite duty was as a host (the guy who would ask you how many people in your party and then say, “it’ll be a 20 minute wait” no matter how many people were in line ahead of you) but everyone who worked there had to also work in the kitchen at least one shift per week. Almost all of my time in the kitchen was spent as a “channel cook” which means I made nachos and topopo salads. The topopo is interesting because it was one item which did not use a “secret spice pack” as part of the recipe (an example that does use one is the salsas and cheese dip). These packs were hand-made by one of the managers and the ingredients were very closely guarded.

    I can confirm that the beans were made fresh daily — cooked from enormous bags of hard beans by a person known as the “back cook,” who cooked up frijoles, ground beef, etc — I was offered the job but had to refuse when I found out this poor person begins work at 4:30am. There is NO lard in the beans — just some artificially-flavored non-meat “bacon bits” and a small amount of vegetable oil (about 4oz in 50 lbs of beans) and the beans — that is all.

    The vinegar used in the topopo salad was apple cider vinegar and the oil was sunflower oil. The proportion depended on my mood.

    The rice was slowly heated dry all morning in a huge metal pan before being cooked in the water they use to boil the chickens. Yes, they boiled the chicken meat. If you had gone out the back door of El Az when it was in the basement and looked into the kitchen to your right, the big pan with the dry rice was just inside the door.

    The cheese for nachos was a mixture of muenster and another cheese I can’t quite remember — for awhile it was frankenmuth but then it changed.

    The person who said El Az doesn’t use fresh food never worked there, obviously.

    And lastly, one key to mimicking El Azteco food is to use absolute top-shelf tortillas and chips — Art S (the owner) ran his own mini tortilla factory which was outside E. Lansing (maybe Williamston??), and we got fresh shipments in big cardboard boxes every morning. The flour tortillas especially were very strong without being tough or too chewy — I’ve never been able to find comparable ones anywhere.

    The hardest job I ever had was working at El Azteco, but I’m glad I worked “the channel” and so is my wife and kids. ^_^

    Reply
  60. hi everyone,

    hi Annie- I’m a fellow MLFB and just got the email introducing your site. I worked at El Az for 5 years and can most emphatically tell you that the beans do NOT come out of a can, nor do they contain lard!! They are 100% vegan; the “secret ingredient” is fake bacon bits.

    Re: your cheese dip being soupy, as I recall the recipe, the amount of shredded cheese was in a 1:1 ratio with the cottage cheese and sour cream (that is, equal proportions of all three) rather than half. French onion soup mix was definitely in there too. Other than that, it looks pretty accurate. (It’s funny, I was just comtemplating posting about this. Maybe I’ll have to do a “Enchiladas de Jocoque” post instead!)

    Reply
  61. Richard, what an interesting (and useful) comment. thanks so much – it kind of resolves a lot of conflicting information that’s been written here since I originally posted. Now I can use the right kind of oil and vinegar. I think he still owns the tortilla “factory,” and the chips are still my favorites.

    Mlle. Noelle, thanks for coming by – I am in the process of checking out the MLFB blogs, but I’m kind of slammed with things in my “real” work life lately which has slowed me down. Thanks for the tip on the cheese dip – next time I’ll use your ratio, and try using onion soup mix in place of the garlic powder, although I’m guessing I’ll need more than a teaspoon of soup mix…I’ll play. post the enchiladas – I have a friend who loves them above all other foods, and she’ll be ecstatic.

    Reply
  62. Now I can share the Topopo magic with the Albany NY area. As an OHS 1985 grad, I know you in a tangental, “I think I had Mr. Collar with your brother” and “I think you know my brother Rick” sort of way. Thanks for the recipe!

    Reply
  63. I grew up in Okemos…graduated in 1989. El Ez, Bilbos and Pinball Petes were familiar haunts. When I go home, I head to El Ez with my fam that still lives there. I now reside in downtown Chicago, home of good eats, but nothing and I mean nothing beats, Topopo, cheese dip and a shaken margarita from home.

    Reply
  64. hey again,

    just posted an el az-style chicken enchilada recipe on my blog, along with chile verde & chile colorado recipes, if anyone’s interested :)

    Reply
  65. Karen, I wish you’d tell me your last name! (Or give me more hints). I’m wracking my brain trying to come up with a Karen with a brother named Rick…I’m glad you found the recipe and I hope you spread the joy in Albany!

    Kate, I agree that there’s nothing like it. You can now make your own and dazzle your Chicagoland friends.

    Noelle, I’m all over it – thanks!!!!

    Reply
  66. Pingback: “B” is for “Budget” and “Bummer” « Forest Street Kitchen

  67. Thank heavens someone knows about topopo salads! It’s been close to 25 years and what do I miss about MSU? El Az’s topopo salad and cheese dip. Thank you for the recipe. Dipping my chips in cottage cheese and pretending was good but left me longing for the real thing.

    Reply
  68. Rita, I’m so glad you don’t have to dip your chips in cottage cheese any more! I hope you read all of the comments vis a vis cheese dip – I was much less pleased with the results of that recipe than the other, and I think a couple of commenters have made great suggestions. It’s all an improvement over an unadorned tub of cottage cheese, though. :)

    Reply
  69. Never been to your part of the country before but I’m always looking for a new and interesting “taco salad” type dish-I can’t get enough good Mexican food and it’s less good up here in Oregon than it was in California, so I’d best make it myself. Thanks for new ideas
    Shoy

    Reply
  70. brazenbites, I hope you enjoy it – it’s more Tex Mex than Real Mex, but it sure tastes good!

    Reply
  71. I’ve been making the cheese dip for years – long before I knew it was El Azteco’s cheese dip. Someone gave me the recipe 20+ years ago and it’s a huge hit at every family event.

    My husband is a Topopo Salad nut. Whenever we pass thru Lansing for any reason we try to stop so he can get a “bobo” salad, as he calls it. We stopped last Saturday and we were trying to figure out how to make a Topopo salad at home. He must have been thinking about this today because he found your website and sent me the link.

    Reply
  72. imagineannie

    Fentonite, even made “incorrectly” (if you read the vehement opinions above) the cheese dip is a great thing. I hope your husband (and you) will be pleased with the Topopo recipe. I grew up in EL, and I’ve been eating them forever, so I tried to be pretty accurate. Let me know!!

    Reply
  73. Hey ya’ll. I’ve checked everything out, and as a former employee(about 1985-87) i know a little secret.
    The beans were fresh,(not canned) and we had many a ‘bean gun’ fight when you were waiting for your burrito.
    Don’t worry it was at the end of the shift.(maybe)
    The cheese dip info is pretty much spot on.
    I’ve made it for my homies in New Orleans, and they all love it.

    Now I live in SF and all these fools are horrified about lard,and so forth.
    Ah, the “salad” days..

    Good Job

    Reply
  74. I’m here to verify Noelle’s info and add some. I worked at El Az from ’83-’93 and late’95- early 2000. I did every job except manage. I just dumped a bunch of juicy tidbits on Noelle’s blog, and I’ll leave some other info here. Although the menu lists Muenster cheese as an ingredient for the cheese dip, it was switched to Monterey Jack in the mid- ’80s. The “secret ingredient” is in fact French onion soup mix minus the dried onions. There is no garlic. There is a small amount of diced jalapenos so that you get a little tiny piece every third or fourth bite. There is also a dash of Worcestershire…….yes folks, there’s cow AND fish in the filling for Blue Corn enchiladas(Worcestershire has anchovies) that vegetarians order with double frijoles so as to avoid the chicken broth in the rice. James is wrong about the managers mixing the spice packs; that was/is done at the tortilla factory as well as sifting of onions from bulk FO soup mix – Lipton’s from 7-11 WAS used on rare occasions when we ran out though. The beans are pinto, cooked from scratch with a small amount of vegetable shortening, seasoned with imitation bacon bits(soy protein and salt) and salt. They are totally vegan. The dressing for topopos is cider vinegar and soybean oil and it’s supposed to be half and half, though plenty of employees have decided through the years that that’s too vinegary and take it upon themselves to mix it more towards 2 to 1…I’ve recently read a bunch of really funny misinformation online about the original source for some of these recipes – here’s reality – Sunset publishing put out a cookbook of Mexican food in the 1970s. It was the source of the jocoque and cheese dip recipes and it used to live under the front counter for the first couple years in the basement…they’ve been in the public domain all along!!! One more thing, the salsa varies because the fresh jalapenos vary throughout the year. A volume measure is used, so when the Js are hotter, so is the sauce. And no, you can’t have that recipe and Noelle doesn’t quite have it either.

    Reply
  75. Oops! two more things. to get your proportions right on the cheese dip use your sour cream or cottage cheese container as a volume measure for the shredded cheese (lightly packed) and diced green onions. The FO soup seasoning and Worcestershire you’ll just have to play with.Finally other former employees have helped spread bad info – Clare on Facebook, onions in the CV – she didn’t backcook. I was the last white guy to do it and trained the El Salvadoran brothers who do it now…yes I used to have rainbow dreadlocks

    Reply
    • Update- there are white guys backcooking at El Az E.L. again. Not that it’s important, but at the time of my above post I’d been the last since 2000.

      Reply
      • We just returned from lunch at El Az and like many others, just had to stop in for a quick bite while we were inear the area. We live far enough away that frequent visits are not part of the schedule, but close enough that I can find reasons to swing into East Lansing a couple times a year. I think I might put a plan together to make cheese dip this weekend. I thoroughly enjoyed reading all these messages. So many crazy memories – MSU from 83-88. Thank you. Will Costco chicken work for Topopo?

  76. Sorry, it’s Cari on Facebook, wrong about the CV. If anyone there knows though it’s Jude, she line cooked,backcooked and managed. The one advantage I have over her is a short stint I did at the tortilla factory, the place where the spice packs are assembled.

    Reply
  77. Wow…did not know about the fake bacon bits in the beans. That is a new one on me. I was going to ask for the salsa recipe…why is that such a secret?

    Anyone have a recommendation on what chips or tortillas to use if you can’t get the ones from the Tortilla Factory there? Thx.

    This is such a cool blog by the way.

    Reply
  78. well I found the salsa recipe or something close to it, so that is cool.

    Reply
  79. Here, from a reader who wishes to remain anonymous, is the top-secret El Az Cheese Dip recipe. Merry Christmas, and thanks to our anonymous angel!!

    16 oz sour cream
    16 oz cottage cheese
    16 oz shredded Monteray Jack Cheese
    one dash worshteshire sauce
    1 teaspoon garlic powder
    1/2 bag lipton onion soup mix minus the dried onions (you’ll end up with just under 2 teaspoons of the spices)
    3 minced jalapenos minus the seeds
    1 and 1/2 bunches of scallions chopped.
    I mix the sour cream, cottage cheese and then the W sauce, garlic powder, and onion soup mix. Stir it up and then I add the veggies and the Monteray Jack cheese last to thicken it up. It really does taste better the second day!
    OK, there it is, I’ve been making it for 18 years now. delete my e-mail address. And Long Live El Azteco!!!!

    Reply
    • There is NO garlic powder in the cheese dip recipe. And you don’t measure the green onions by the bunch, you use the empty sour cream tub full of diced green onions…that’s how it’s done in the restaurant. And it’s French onion soup, not onion soup. The difference is beef base…

      Reply
  80. We made the topopo for dinner last night, working from memory and using your recipe as a reference. Thanks for posting it. Just like the authentic El Az experience, I ate way too much. The only thing missing was the margaritas. We saved the leftovers, but what’s the point? It’s never edible the next day.

    By the way, I lived at 544 Forest as a student in the late 80s. I’m guessing that’s right up (or down) the hill from you. I often think about how beautiful that house could have been if it hadn’t been destroyed by students over the years.

    Reply
    • Are you the Amy Clark with whom I went to high school?!

      The leftovers are not good, and we do not have the margaritas at home…just not generally up to tequila with family dinner.

      That is right down the street, and not in great shape. This is a whole street of houses that were beautiful – when the students go home for vacation and it’s peaceful I can imagine what it was like in 1912 when our house was built….

      Reply
  81. Brilliant rendition of the El Az Topopo! I’ve also found that it can be rendered down to taco size successfully – fry tacos, smear with heated beans, cheese, guacamole and salsa; top with a thin layer of salad (finely shredded lettuce, dressing, green onions plus whatever else). Eat like a tostada or fold for taco. Two seem to be plenty for a decent meal. El Az is alive an well on your plate!

    Reply
    • Thanks so much – I love the idea of “minis,” since a whole Topopo is something you kind of have to commit to, since leftovers are not great.

      Reply
  82. I am mystified by everyone’s spurning of leftover topopo. Cripes, airlift’em all to me, eh? I prefer next-morning topopo to even leftover pizza. A little brown on the guac does not interfere with flavor my friends!

    Reply
  83. I was just at El Az this week and went back and forth between deciding to have the blue corn enchiladas and the topopo salad. I ended up with the enchiladas, but have been craving the topopo ever since. I googled it and came across your site. I am so excited to try this recipe and the cheese dip recipe! Thanks so much!

    Reply
    • I’m so glad you found it! You can definitely make a Topopo good enough for El Az standards from this recipe; I’ve never seen a decent copy of the blue corn enchiladas, so you did well to eat them while you were there.

      Reply
  84. someone mentioned the dip being too runny, we just had this dip today at a work potluck…which is why I searched the internet for recipe….I was told in order for it to not be runny to only use Michigan brand cottage cheese.

    Reply
  85. I love this salad, havent had it in years. Does the cheese dip go on the salad or just for side chips?

    Reply
  86. Topopo doesn’t mean volcano, it is a made up word. The word in Spanish for volcano is “Volcan”. “Totopos”, (with the letter T) are the name of thin flat tortillas usually served in Oaxaca and Chiapas. They are crispy and remind me of Indian papadums.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Totopo

    “Topopo” is a cute play on words using the name a volcano in central Mexico – Pocopatepetl. People in central Mexico usually shorten the name and call it “El Popo”.

    Totopo + El Popo = Topopo

    Anyway, sorry about the fastidious correction. There is an ancient (and tragic) Aztec love story about “El Popo”. Here is the link if anyone is interested.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Popocat%C3%A9petl_and_Iztacc%C3%ADhuatl

    Reply
  87. I just wanted to let you know I tried your recipe for the cheese dip and everyone loved it! Since I didn’t frequent El Az while going to ELHS, I have only tried the original version once and can’t recall the taste enough to compare. But I really do like this recipe, and since it has received such rave reviews, it’s definitely going in my recipe “box”!

    Thanks for posting the recipe :)

    Reply
  88. A friend who went to MSU and worked at the restaurant gave me this recipe on Friday, just because she thought I’d like it. I googled the recipe and stumbled on your website, and now have the Topopo Salad recipe as a bonus! My daughter and I were looking for fun recipes to go with Margaritas for a girls’ night next Saturday, and now I have them. Thanks!

    Reply
  89. I make the cheese dip all the time, but I don’t add all those extras. Just cottage cheese, sour cream, muenster, jack, jalapeno’s, REAL garlic and the onions. I think it turns out great. The only thing is letting it set. LOL. I don’t even measure anything anymore, I’ve made it so often. It’s a lot cheaper than buying it. I’m still close to both El Az’s….In fact, headed there tomorrow for a date! I’m too lazy to make the topopo and have been craving it. :)

    Reply
  90. Oh, and I suppose I should give measurements for those who do want to make it my way. 1 cup each of the cottage cheese and sour cream, 1/2 lb each of the meunster and jack, 2 jalapeno’s (or to taste), 2 cloves garlic (though I usually use a tablespoon of the minced stuff out of a jar…or to taste. I like mine with LOTS of garlic) and a bunch of sliced green peppers. Put everything but the onions in a blender or food processor until smooth, mix in green peppers and let set in fridge for at least a couple of hours to let all the flavors meld (I know it’s hard to wait, but it’s worth it and it does firm it up a bit as well.) I’ve made it a lot of times without the jack cheese as well, just the muenster. And a lot of times I omit the green onions. Still very very good.

    Reply
  91. I am the old guy here. I have been eating them for 35 years. Mostly from the Saginaw resturant. I do fondly remember doing the take out thing. I would bring home the salad and it was on two heavy paper plates, stacked on top of each other. I took it out of the bag, took a long sirated knife, and cut it in half and put it on two plates for the wife and I. A thing of beauty. But if you eat in the resturant you get way more. LOL

    Reply
  92. Love them both….

    Reply
  93. I must say that I tried both recipes a couple of weeks ago. It was at a friends house and for the MSU game. We all eat alot at El Azteco. The recipes were just perfect. I did the chicken breasts on the grill to add some spice. WONDERFUL! Thanks for sharing.

    As we all do, I look for ways to improve a recipe. I think next time I will stop into El Azteco and buy some of THEIR chips. They are heavier and go so well with the salad. Thanks again and GO GREEN!

    Reply
  94. Pingback: Who’s that Spartan making Topopo Salad? (It’s me! It’s me!) « Jeez-o-petes

  95. Pingback: Delicious Recipes » El Azteco Cheese Dip

  96. Ok–a restaurant just opened near me (in west chicagoland) called totoppo—-it reminded me of the topoppo at El Az at MSU. so I typed in toppopo recipe and up you appeared! Our family made way too much of tonight—it was just as we remembered and our stomachs are tight! We are grateful to you for sharing this…..so much fun to prepare and then eat!!!

    Reply
  97. Horrocks Farm Market (on the corner of Saginaw & Canal Rd) is selling El Azteco Cheese Dip!!! For those who don’t want to make it. The ingreds: sour cream, cottage cheese, jalapenos, scallions, monterey jack cheese, spices. Priced at 8.99 a pound

    Reply
  98. I worked there circa ’98 and manned the bean gun. It was a pedal activated bean squirter the crazy owner invented to spread the beans evenly over the chips for the tapopo.

    Reply
  99. I moved here in 1973 for grad school and remember the old el az on M.A.
    C. The urban myth (which I believe to be true) is that the ceiling fell in, prompting Al to open the new restaurant. My favorite is the mild jocoque
    (others get the spicey one) with a Dos Equis/lime wedge. Or the chicken soup with homemade tortillas made by their tortilleriá, La India.

    Reply
  100. I was just talking about the cheese dip with a new acquaintance over the weekend. I will try out the recipe! Thanks!

    Reply
  101. You know what I have a hard time finding? Blue Corn Tortillas, living here in NYC. They must be around somewhere, but I haven’t found them yet. Anyone know what went inside the Blue Corn Enchildadas?

    Reply
  102. It’s apple cider vinegar, not rice or distilled. There is no sugar. Also the cheese is parm. I used to make these in the El Az kitchen all the time.

    Reply
  103. Wow! I was having el Azteco withdrawal as I have not had a Topopo or cheese dip in about 3 years. Stopped at noon today on my way back to Monroe area from Muskegon. It was wonderful! Now I can’t wait to try the recipes. I have found no restaurant in southeastern Michigan that is able to top these two dishes. I wish they would open one in the Ann Arbor/Detroit area.

    Reply
  104. I graduated from MSU in 1985 and still crave El Az! I also used to live on Forest St and absolutely loved the house that my friends and I rented.
    I was spending a lazy Sunday afternoon watching Spartan hoops and eating a boring taco salad. Started thing about the best salad ever and decided to Saerch “Topopo Salad.” Soooooo glad I did! Will be trying the recipes this week. Gracias, gracias!!!! I live outside of Boston now, and truly miss El Az.
    Does anyone know the recipe for their Sangria or Chili Colorado Burritos?

    Reply
  105. She knows what she’s talking about

    Reply

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