Adobo Chicken Tacos
A call for homemade flour tortillas is one I'm always obliged to answer. Over the weeks prior to making these tacos, I had an increasing desire for some soft and tender Houston-style tortillas, the type that are kind of semi-transparent due to their sizable fat content, which, in my opinion, is what makes them so great. These are not the common flour tortillas you get at grocery stores or most restaurants outside of Houston. Their regionality renders them something I end up making at home fairly regularly, more often than not to be used for fajitas, and then any leftovers are utilized for quesadillas, queso fundido, or just eating plain. I've been on a roll during the pandemic though with not repeating meals much at all, and since I had already done fajitas and wanted to keep that trend going, I began looking to tacos as a use for flour tortillas and decided to try something completely new for me with these adobo chicken tacos.
With excess time on my hands, I've been taking on recipes as multi-day projects, which made the final recipe rather lengthy, but there's definitely ways to cut down the effort here and there. One thing I wouldn't skip though is making the pickled red onions. These were quick to put together and ended up being the crucial element that tied the taco together. The good news about these onions though is that they make a large batch that pretty much will keep as long as you want, so if you make them once, you'll have them on hand to use again and again in other meals.
I settled on making an adobo sauce as the chicken seasoning for a couple reasons: I had an excess of dried chiles in the cupboard I could utilize and I also never tried to make this sauce from scratch before—my main interaction with adobo in the past really has been from cans of chipotles in adobo. That sauce has an intensity of smokiness and spiciness that are products of the chipotles (smoked jalapeños), but adobo on its own uses less spicy and more earthy peppers. I went in with a combo fo anchos and guajillos here that I first toasted in a cast iron skillet until fragrant.
Then after stemming and deseeding the peppers, I steeped them in boiling water to rehydrate them. Next they went into the jar of a blender along with chicken stock, cider vinegar, garlic, sugar, oregano, black pepper, cumin, and cloves and then pureed until completely smooth. After that, I transferred the sauce to a saucepan and simmered it until it thickened up for about 30 minutes.
After letting the sauce cool to room temperature, I placed my skinless, boneless chicken thighs in a Ziploc bag, poured in the adobo marinade, and sealed. Then into the fridge it went overnight.
For the tortillas to be as fresh as possible, I made them as close to serving, right before it was time to grill. Many years ago I did a lot of testing with flour tortillas and found that nothing really compares to lard for making them, but too many grocery store lards have either an over-processed flavor or too intense of a porcine quality that can make the tortillas come out tasting odd. Mild tasting back or leaf lard were the best bets for tortillas, and I noticed my local grocery start selling this type of natural, white lard, so I picked some up to make my ideal tortillas. My original recipe called for incorporating the lard cold as you would when making pastry, but over the years I've switched to the more traditional method of heating the lard in water first to melt it.
I then use my food processor to combine the flour and liquid to make quick work of kneading the dough—once a ball forms, it's pretty much done. I use two rests for the dough, the first with the dough as a whole ball for 20 minutes, then an additional 20 minutes after dividing the dough into individual portions. To make these taco-sized tortillas, I split the dough into 16 pieces, which made for tortillas roughly 6-inches in diameter.
Cooking the tortillas is pretty quick work. The best way to cook them is in a hot cast iron skillet, and it only takes roughly 30 seconds per side for the tortillas to develop brown spots and cook through. While that's fast, it's still enough time to roll out the next tortilla while the current one cooks, so I was able to get through an entire batch of 16 tortillas in about 20 minutes, which is time very well spent in my book.
I decided I wanted to pair the earthy adobo chicken with a bright and creamy guacamole, and while I was trying new things, I changed up my guacamole recipe for the first time ever. I've always utilized Alton Brown's guacamole recipe, but I did things pretty different this time around by first pounding a roasted poblano, onion, garlic, and cilantro into a paste in my mortar and pestle.
I then mixed that into my mashed avocados along with lime juice. The end result was a very differently guacamole experience—where I'm used to more varieties of textures and flavors, this one was pretty smooth throughout and the ingredients really melded together to give a uniform fruity, herbal, and oniony taste.
Whew, we're finally in the homestretch of these tacos, and the only things left is grilling followed by assembly. I cooked the marinated thighs over direct, high heat, which cooked the chicken through in ten minutes. I had reserved some marinade in case these were going to require basting, but a good layer of marinade stayed adhered to the exterior throughout cooking, so extra brushings weren't needed in the end. Once the chicken was done and rested, I roughly chopped it up and piled it into the still warm tortillas along with servings of guacamole, pickled red onions, cotija cheese, and fresh cilantro.
I was a little taken aback on the first taste of the taco—each component tasted so intense when I making it, I was expecting an in your face wave of flavor in the tacos, but it was actually rather subdued. I thought maybe I had a just "meh" recipe on my hands, but my initial impression changed as I ate my way through three tacos. The earthy flavor of the adobo did mellow on the grill, but it was still prominent and melded well with the creamy guacamole. Since both of those primary components ended up being more mild than I was expecting in the end, the tangy crunch of the onions is what really delivered the boost that these tacos needed to feel whole. Of course the flour tortillas were excellent and were what made me happiest about this dish, but I do have an enthusiasm for flour tortillas that seems higher than the average person. These tacos definitely delivered the "something different" I set out to accomplish with my flour tortillas, although they also kind of left me just wanting my favorite way to use them—skirt steak fajitas.
Adobo Chicken Tacos
- Yield 6 to 8 servings
- For the Pickled Red Onions
- 1 medium red onion, peeled and thinly sliced
- 1 jalapeño, stemmed and thinly sliced
- 1 cup apple cider vinegar
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- For the Adobo Chicken
- 4 ancho chiles
- 3 dried New Mexican or Guajillo chilis
- 1 1/2 cups chicken stock
- 3 tablespoons cider vinegar
- 4 garlic cloves
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano (preferably Mexican)
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
- Pinch ground cloves
- 2lbs boneless, skinless chicken thighs, trimmed of excess fat
- Kosher salt
- For the Flour Tortillas
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 3/4 cup water
- 1/4 cup lard or vegetable shortening
- For the Guacamole
- 1 large poblano pepper
- 1/2 cup finely chopped white onion
- 1/3 cup roughly chopped fresh cilantro
- 2 cloves garlic
- 3 ripe avocados
- 2 tablespoons lime juice
- Kosher salt
- For the Tacos
- 1/3 cup finely grated cotija cheese
- 1/4 cup finely chopped fresh cilantro
- To make the pickled red onions: Place onion and jalapeño slices in a large glass jar. In a medium saucepan set over high heat, whisk together vinegar, water, sugar, and salt and bring to a boil. Pour hot liquid into jar with onion and jalapeño. Let cool to room temperature, cover, and transfer to refrigerator.
- To make the adobo chicken: Place chilies in a 10-inch cast iron skillet set over medium-high heat. Toast, flipping occasionally, until chilies are aromatic, 2-5 minutes. Transfer chiles to a cutting board and remove stems and seeds. Place chilies in a small bowl and add in enough boiling water to completely submerge chilies. Let steep for 10 minutes. Drain chiles from water and transfer to the jar of a blender. Add in chicken stock, garlic, sugar, oregano, black pepper, cumin, and cloves. Cover and puree until completely smooth. Transfer sauce to a medium saucepan set over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium, and simmer until sauce has thickened, 20 to 30 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature. Season with salt to taste.
- Place chicken thighs in a large Ziploc bag, pour in adobo sauce, seal, and toss to evenly distribute marinade. Place bag in refrigerator for 4 hours to overnight.
- To make the tortillas: Place flour and salt in the workbowl of a food processor and pulse to combine. Place water and lard or vegetable shortening in a small saucepan set over medium heat and warm until solid fat has completely melted. With the motor running, drizzle hot liquid through the feed tube of food processor and process until a solid ball of dough forms. If ball does not form, add in extra water, 1 tablespoons at a time and continue to process, until it does. Transfer dough to a lightly floured work surface and knead a few times to create a smooth ball. Cover dough with a damp cloth or plastic wrap and let rest for 20 minutes. Split dough into 16 equal pieces, cover, and let rest an additional 10 minutes.
- Heat cast iron skillet, griddle, or comal over medium-high heat. Meanwhile, place one ball of dough on a lightly floured work surface and pat down into a flat disc. Using a rolling pin, roll dough out to a very thin 6-inch round. Place dough in skillet and cook until bubbles form on top side and bottom side has light browned spots, 15-30 seconds. Flip tortilla and cook until second side develops light browned spots, 15-30 seconds longer. Transfer tortilla to a plate and cover with dish cloth. Repeat with remaining balls of dough. Cover tortillas with a kitchen towel to keep warm.
- To make the guacamole: Light one chimney full of charcoal. When all the charcoal is lit and covered with gray ash, pour out and spread the coals evenly over entire surface of charcoal grate. Set cooking grate in place, cover grill, and allow to preheat for 5 minutes. Clean and oil grilling grate. Place poblano on grill and cook, turning occasionally, until skin is completely charred all over, about 10 minutes. Place in a bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let stand until cooled, 5-10 minutes.
- While poblano cools, place chicken on grill and and cook, flipping occasionally, until well browned and cooked through, about 10 minutes total. Transfer chicken to a cutting board and let rest.
- Peel off charred skin; remove stem and seed poblano. Transfer poblano to a mortar and pestle along with onion, cilantro, and garlic and work into a rough paste. Scoop out avocado flesh into a medium bowl, and in lime juice, and, using a fork or potato masher, mash to desired consistency. Transfer contents of mortar and pestle to bowl with avocados and stir to combine. Season with salt to taste.
- To assemble tacos: Roughly chop chicken thighs. Place a serving of chicken in each tortilla followed by a couple spoonfuls of guacamole. Top with pickled red onion slices, cotija cheese, and cilantro. Serve immediately.