Sopa Azteca con Pollo {Chicken Tortilla Soup}

Sopa Azteca, unlike it's Americanized cousin, tortilla soup, is actually a light flavorful broth scented with pasilla chiles, tomato, onion and garlic then topped with fried tortilla strips. The best part? The garnishes of chicken, avocado, chicharrones and more! It's perfect for a chilly night.

If you do a search for tortilla soup on the internet, the results are wildly different. From a chicken soup topped with fried tortilla chips, to a broth that has been thickened with masa or tortillas to a vegetable-laden soup with black beans and corn or the entire contents of a veg drawer and often topped with sour cream and yellow cheese. Probably most of these are tasty soups but they tend to be a far cry from the original inspiration, sopa azteca. The birthplace of the soup is a little clouded in mystery but generally, it's believed to have originated in central Mexico where the favored chile to flavor the soup is pasilla (sold under the name chile negro here in the U.S.). Other parts of Mexico favor the smokier and slightly sweeter chile ancho or the spicier chile de arbol.

Sopa azteca is a light broth of tomatoes, chile, garlic, onion and the bitter green, epazote, topped with strips of fried corn tortillas and the distinctive lift from a squeeze of lime. It's an excellent choice for a dinner party, because for me, this soup is all about the garnishes so people can customize their soup to make it uniquely their own. Traditional topping choices include shredded chicken, chicharrones, avocado, salsa, fried strips of pasilla chile (or chile that was used to flavor the broth) cilantro, panela  (a Mexican cheese similar in texture to Indian paneer or even Greek halloumi), Mexican crema and plenty of wedges of lime.

With the storm moving into San Diego this week, the big pot of this soup in the refrigerator is going to be the perfect antidote to a chilly evening. I hope you give it a whirl, especially if you've mostly only had the Tex-Mex inspired versions full of black beans and corn. This light broth, by the way, gets even better a day or two later, after the flavors have had a chance to mingle.

The steps

Bake the tortillas to dry them out, then cut into strips.

Fry them babies up!

Make your own flavorful broth with a couple of leg quarters, bay leaves, coriander, peppercorns, allspice berries, onion and garlic.

For a tastier broth, buy bone-in chicken and remove the skin yourself to save a little cash. This gets boiled with those aromatic spices until fork tender, about 25-30 minutes.

Then shred those thighs and legs into bite-sized pieces. Use a fork if you can't stand the heat. (J/K)

The main flavor of the soup comes from the dried pasillas (again, also known as chile negro they are long and narrow, the dried version of a fresh green chilaca pepper; we don't want the erroneously named "ancho-pasilla" which are fatter and are, in fact, not pasillas but rather dried poblano peppers). Plus roma tomatoes, onion, cilantro (or epazote), garlic, salt and Mexican oregano (optional, but I prefer it with).

As always, the stems and seeds need to be removed from the chiles. I find kitchen shears and my fingers are best for this task. Three chiles (I know, only three are pictured here; the fourth was a little camera shy) will be rehydrated and blended with the tomatoes; the fourth one will be cut into ribbons …

and fried for 10 seconds then set aside to be used as a garnish.

The tomatoes will be stove-top roasted on a comal (griddle) along with the onions and garlic until they are charred.

They'll get added to a blender, along with the rehydrated chiles, spices, and the chile steeping liquid …

And blitzed until as smooth and homogenous as your blender allows.

Then the mixture gets pushed through a strainer until you're left with a gorgeous, chile tomato garlic-scented salsa (sauce) …

That then gets fried and simmered until it reduces and the flavors concentrate. Then the reserved chicken broth gets added and the soup gets to simmer for at least 15 minutes (though I prefer 30 minutes if you aren't dying of hunger) so the flavors marry and get happy.

Then comes the fun part, making the soup your own by piling on the garnishes of your choice. So freaking good! I especially love the panela queso which doesn't melt. The outer layer of the cheese soaks up the chile and tomato perfumed broth while the inside remains creamy and chewy. Yum!

OK, now. Just go make this already. I think you're gonna love it.

Sopa Azteca con Pollo (chicken tortilla soup)
The tortillas get baked first to dry them out, especially important if they are relatively fresh. Removing the moisture before frying serves two purposes: first, it helps to keep the tortillas from absorbing too much oil as they'll actually fry faster so they won't spend as much time in the oil and secondly, the chips get particularly crunchy so they hold their texture in the hot broth longer than store bought chips or chips that weren't dried out first. I'm also going old school here, cooking the chicken which will also provide the broth for the soup and charring the tomatoes. If you want to cut out some prep time, pick up a rotisserie chicken plus 48 ounces of low sodium chicken broth and substitute the fresh tomatoes for a 14-ounce can of fire roasted tomatoes. I'm also substituting the traditional epazote with cilantro as I prefer the flavor. You can use either. If you choose to use the epazote, don't add it to the blender with the tomatoes but rather, add it to the sauce while it simmers, discarding before incorporating the broth.

Makes six servings as a first course or 4 as a main


8 corn tortillas
1 - 1 ½ cups avocado or canola oil, for frying
sea salt

For the chicken:
2 bone-in leg quarters, skin and most of the fat removed
¼ large onion
3 cloves of garlic, peeled
2 tablespoons coarse sea salt (or 1 tablespoon kosher salt)
2-3 bay leaves, depending on size
½ teaspoon coriander seeds
½ teaspoon whole peppercorns
½ teaspoon whole allspice berries
6 cups water

For the tomato chile base:
4 dried pasilla chiles (aka, chile negro), divided
4 large roma tomatoes 
½-inch thick slice of onion
2 small or 1 large clove garlic, skins still on
¼ of a bunch of cilantro
½ teaspoon coarse sea salt
1 teaspoon whole Mexican oregano
water, as needed

4 or 5 limes, cut length-wise into wedges
1 avocado, diced
cilantro, coarsely chopped
store-bought chicharrones
¼ pound panela cheese or queso fresco, coarsely crumbled by hand
½ cup Mexican crema (or sour cream to which the juice of 1/2 lime has been incorporated)
salsa macha (recipe here) or your favorite salsa
whole Mexican oregano


Fry the chips: Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Arrange 8 tortillas on a large baking sheet (slighting overlapping is fine). Bake for 10 minutes. Remove the tortillas from the oven and cool for 5 minutes. Add the oil to a 2-quart saucepan and heat to shimmering. While oil heats, cut the tortillas in half then slice each half into ¼-inch strips. When oil is shimmering, add a couple of handfuls of the prepared tortillas, using a slotted spoon to keep the tortillas moving, preventing them from sticking to each other. Fry until just getting color, remove them to a paper-towel lined plate and hit them with sprinkle of salt. Repeat with remaining tortilla strips, then set aside.

Cook the chicken: Place all the ingredients for the chicken into a stock pot. Bring to a hard boil, then lower heat to medium-low or to just sustain a gentle simmer and cook for 30 minutes. Then remove chicken to a plate and allow to cool for 15 minutes before shredding with your hands into bite-sized pieces. Place in a bowl and ladle ½ cup of broth over the chicken to keep it moistened while you continue with the prep. Strain the broth, discarding the spent onion, garlic and seeds; set broth aside.

Prep the chiles: Put the pot with the oil you used to make the chips back on the stove and heat to shimmering. Cut the stems off the chiles. Slit them length-wise to open and remove the seeds. Place three of the chiles into another small sauce pan, cover with water. Bring to a boil. Turn off heat and allow to steep for 15 minutes. Take up the fourth chile and using kitchen sheers, cut it (short-side) into thin ribbons. Place these ribbons into a small strainer and once oil is hot, lower the strainer into the hot oil for 10 seconds, remove the chiles and place on a paper towel-lined plate to drain off the excess oil. Set aside, these will be part of the garnish choices.

Char the vegetables: Heat a griddle or large skillet (cast iron works best). Once hot, add the tomatoes, onion slice and garlic. Cook, turning occasionally, until charred. The onion will char fastest so remove it to the jar of a blender first. The garlic will be next done; peel the skin off the garlic and add to blender. The tomatoes can take up to 15 minutes to char on most sides, once they are ready, add them to the blender.

Make the sauce: Add the now rehydrated chiles to the blender with the rest of the vegetables. Add ½ cup of the chile soaking liquid and blend until smooth. If you have a Vitamix or Blendtec, this should be fairly quick. My blender requires me to run the smoothie program three times to get it to where I want. Add two tablespoons of the oil you used to fry the tortillas to a 6-quart soup pot and heat to shimmering. Meanwhile, over a large bowl, pour the sauce through a fine mesh strainer, using a spatula to work it through. This will catch any pulp, seeds and skins that will make the final broth chunky and heavy. Add ½ cup of the chicken broth to the blender jar, swirl to "clean" the jar and pass this through the strainer as well adding it to already strained sauce. Discard the pulp. Pour the sauce into the now hot oil in the soup pot, careful as it might sputter up, stir, lower heat to medium-low and allow sauce to reduce by about half, about 15 minutes; this will concentrate the flavors.

Finish the soup: Once the sauce has simmered and reduced, pour in the strained chicken broth, stirring to incorporate. Taste and adjust seasoning, adding salt to taste. Allow the soup to gently simmer for 15 minutes, skimming off any foam that might rise to the surface.

To serve: Place the prepared garnishes into small bowls or ramekins and set on the dinning table. Add a handful or two of the tortilla chips to each of four large soup bowls (or six smaller bowls if this is a starter; place left-over chips into a bowl and add to the rest of the garnishes on the table). Add some of the shredded chicken to each bowl then ladle in the broth. Squeeze the juice from a lime wedge over the soup. Allow guests to customize their soup with the provided garnishes. Allow any left-over soup to cool completely before storing in the refrigerator.

Until next time my friends … xo, ani


  1. I'm soooooo making this soup! Beautiful images, Ani!

  2. I use this sauce for a base for chili rellenos as well. pour some into a bowl and "float" the chili on top. So good. Thank you.

    1. OH! I bet that's tasty! I love chiles rellenos!

  3. This was excellent, just what I was looking for. Thank you !

    1. I'm so glad! It's one of my favorites and perfect for chilly weather!

  4. Fussy, but OMG is it worth it. This soup is so rich and flavorful. I needed a good one after a trip to MX and this fit the bill. Thanks!


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