A Summer of Caldos: The Best 10 Mexican Stews, Ranked
1:54 PM PDT on June 24, 2020
[dropcap size=big]E[/dropcap]ating a perfect caldo on a hot day is the culinary equivalent of swimming in Scrooge McDuck’s vault.
It’s rich. It’s tender. And it’s all mine, damn it.
Maybe that’s just me. Maybe it’s because when I close my eyes to dream of the perfect soup, I’m always nine years old sitting in a tiny yellow house in Paramount eating caldo de papa while DuckTales makes me forget about the beating I took that day at school. And the caldo’s incredible colors, heat, and flavors gave me the same satisfaction this old cartoon billionaire got from swimming in a sea of gold.
The irony is that broths were traditionally seen as peasant food. Instead of eating six courses on a dais while people yell “The King in The North” or whatever it is rich people do, us hoi polloi took tough proteins like tripe or beef shank and added a cacophony of vegetables and spices all into a pot of water. By slowly cooking the seemingly dissonant ingredients, you’d get something beautiful and bountiful.
Today, caldos are still an affordable way to feed large numbers of people. That’s why birria is served at quinceñeras and bodas instead of prime rib or the chicken plate.
Executed just right, a caldo can feed your family all week long and actually get better the longer it lasts.
More importantly, caldos have restorative powers. They can help heal an upset stomach or treat a cold. They can boost your immune system. Many are considered hangover cures or cures for the common cold. On a winter day, a caldo can warm your spirits. On a hot day, it can help you stay hydrated and balance your body temperature.
And I don’t know about you but at a time when the world is sick and the poor are getting poorer, I’m so down to take a dip in a metaphorical vault full of gold coins. Woo-oo!
So give me a summer of caldos. Of ollas so big they have to be stored in the shed. Pools of eltoes and carrots and calabacitas. Piping hot bowls full of edible fortune. Preferably in the following order...
The Top 10 Caldos
No. 10 Caldo de Papa
This is the first caldo I can remember eating. I grew up poor in Southeast Los Angeles with a decent-sized family. There were five of us kids, my parents, and usually a cousin or aunt from Mexico. An easy and affordable way to feed all these folks a delicious lunch was caldo de papa. It’s a potato broth that appears deceptively simple. It’s just potatoes in chicken stock, right? Wrong. The complicated stock is what really makes this one of the best caldos in la gastronomía Mexicana. Those mom and abuela secrets range from including milk, garlic, tomatoes, peppers, cheese, bouillon powder, bread, and of course, potatoes.
No. 9 Albóndigas
You know it’s going to be an incredible list when meatball soup is ranked at the bottom of it. I firmly believe that albondigas are best cooked in a clay pot and that seldom is the case on this side of the continent. A typical bowl of albóndigas is made of ground beef or turkey, spiced and rolled into meatballs binded with a little rice, eggs, and herbs. The caldo usually has potatoes, carrots, onion, and calabacitas. My mom adds halves of corn on the cob and half a head of green cabbage (repollo verde) for extra brothy roughage. This is going to sound crazy, but my favorite part of this caldo is the repollo. It soaks all the flavors of the broth and gets a texture close to southern-style cabbage and collard greens.
No. 8 Menudo
Where to get it: The L.A. Taco Guide to the Best Menudo in Los Angeles
How to make it: Recipe Video
Before I pass along some menudo philosophy by L.A. Taco's resident food writers Cesar Hernandez and Gab Chabrán, I want to say that menudo that doesn’t have pata in it, is not for me. The pansa is great and brings a lot to this dish. But the beef feet take it to a whole new level.
Anyway, here are the “Wet Boiz” Chabrán and Hernadez themselves waxing poetic on this cow tripe soup: “There’s usually a brief moment of contemplation involved when eating menudo, Mexico’s world-famous pansa soup. Where you consider a cow tripe’s relationship with its digestion process. But it is a mental hurdle well worth getting over to enjoy a bowl of deeply comforting menudo and its highly sought after hangover-annihilating properties.”
No. 7 Pozole
My indigenous ancestors used to think humans were made of masa (around Christmas time, they’re not wrong) and that hominy was therefore magical. The ceremonial origins of OG pozole made of nixtamalized corn and chunks of human flesh doesn't help this pre-Hispanic belief. You don’t have to imagine how much seasoning and spices would be required to mask the stench of dead person or what that would even taste like because some conquistador foo, who wrote about the transition from human pozole to pork pozole, said pork tasted awfully close. You’re probably rethinking bacon. Mmm bacon. All these Mexican caldo folk tales aside, pozole is still powerfully restorative and it beats menudo for its meat vs. offal-based broth. The former being more approachable for many.
No. 6 Carne en Su Jugo
Carne en su jugo is a specialty of Jalisco. The ingredients can vary but also the way it’s prepared varies. Some chefs like to cook everything together in one pot while others will cook ingredients individually and serve them together in the bowl. It’s fantastic either way because blended tomatillos and beef broth go together like pho and sriracha sauce. It’s hard to go wrong when you slow cook a broth of beans, and beef filets, and top it all with crispy bacon bits to excess on its delicious excessiveness.
No. 5 Birria
If you stay eating tacos in Los Angeles, you might think birria is just a guiso or protein that stuffs a quesataco. Birria tacos have become so popular that even OG taco trucks are pivoting to the red taco craze and stuffing it in cemita buns. But birria is actually a bad MF slow-cooked and qualifies as a type of caldo to some, with its broth made of of chile de arból and chunks of beef, goat, or lamb. Just as often here and much more often in Jalisco, it can be an entire goat—roasted bones and all. There really is no reason birria shouldn’t be No. 1 on this list. I mean it’s just a bowl of meat, broth, onions, chile, and cilantro. But also, it’s just a bowl of meat, broth, onions, chile, and cilantro.
No. 4 Caldo de Pollo
Now we are entering the part of the list that’s so difficult to rank. It was already hard, man. These are all amazing dishes and picking one over the other has my stomach in tears…or maybe I’m just hungry. But caldo de pollo is so perfect. Chicken was meant to be eaten in a broth. Fried, yes, please. Rotisserie, for sure. Grilled, I guess. But slow-cooked in a broth of a rainbow of the finest vegetables and splashed with lime and hot sauce and eaten with tacos de queso fresco just hits differently, especially when prepared by a loved one and a talk show on Univision is on at full blast somewhere in the room.
No. 3 Siete Mares
In the late 80s, my father chased this melody of mariscos all over Los Angeles, trying I assume to treat his hangover. Good mariscos in L.A. is as synonymous as good tacos. My father grew up in Sinaloa, where mariscos rival cartel bosses in notoriety. Un caldo siete mares combines all his favorite creatures from the seven seas into one brilliant broth. A good one was incredibly hard to find back then. It’s a hard trick to pull off considering even a simple fish caldo can turn too fishy quickly. Siete Mares has some type of white fish, shrimp, octopus, squid, mussels, crabs, and clams. All that plus potatoes, carrots, and a bunch of other flavors. With a nearby jukebox on at full blast bumping Grupo Codiciado's 'Gente de Accionar,' discovering the meaning of life is just a slurp and tortilla-bite away.
No. 2 Cocido/Caldo de Res
In my house, we call caldo de res 'Cocido.' I don’t know why. It must be a regional thing. I really don’t care what it’s called, I could have this meal every day for the rest of my life and not grow tired of it. It’s bone-in beef shank cooked in broth for up to three hours until all the meat, even the bone marrow, is melting off the bone. A large pot of this caldo will usually feed my whole family for days with each ensuing day delivering an increasingly better bowl of cocido. Like carne en su jugo, this is one those dishes where the individual ingredients are usually transformed, the vegetables are usually roasted for example, before being added into the broth to finish cooking. It can take all afternoon to make, but the effort usually results in one of the best dishes on the planet. A little chile or salsa goes a long way in cutting the richness, so double up for double satisfaction.
No. 1 Frijoles de la Olla
The best dish on the planet is so simple and ancient, Americans would probably elect it president if it weren’t so Brown. I will take a bowl of frijoles de la olla with diced onions, queso fresco, and chile verde over just about anything. Now you may be thinking, that’s not a caldo, foo. But you’d be wrong. In fact, way back in the day, caldos used to be called ollas because they were made in clay pots. Even the word caldo just means hot broth. Beans are the original hot broth. And if you want to add a bunch of other ingredients into the pot, go ahead. May I suggest some crumbled queso fresco and pico de gallo? But the simplicity of frijoles de la olla is what makes them perfect and quite possibly the most eaten Mexican dish in the world. It may have been the first fully-formed Mexican dish in the world. I don’t know, I’m not a food historian. I’m just a red-headed Mexican American who loves beans like a cartoon billionaire duck loves swimming in gold and bragging about his Number One Dime.
Erick Galindo writes the Mis Ángeles column for LAist/KPCC. He is a contributing Editor to L.A. TACO and has written essays on food and culture for the New York Times and Los Angeles Times. Follow him on Twitter here.
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