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Smoky Chicken Tinga Tacos

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Chicken Tinga Tacos [Photographs: Joshua Bousel]

My co-workers and I have a semi-regular lunchtime tradition of hitting up our favorite Mexican joint for Fiesta Friday (or it could also be Mole Monday, Taco Tuesday, Oaxacan Wednesday, or Torta Thursday). I'm usually in for the double al pastor—one in taco form, the other as a sope. But when I feel like changing things up, I tend to lean toward the chicken tinga.

Chicken tinga is the only taco stuffing on the menu that matches the complexity of al pastor, although it does it in a completely different way with its deeply smoky, spicy, and earthy flavor. It's completely satisfying, making a couple of small tacos taste like a larger, grander meal than they really are.

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This past weekend, thinking of what I'd like to tackle for Cinco de Mayo this year, tinga was at the top of the list. With all of its complexity of flavor, I thought I was in for a challenge along the lines of an ingredient- and process-heavy recipe like mole poblano, but as I researched both classic and contemporary recipes, they all seemed exceedingly straightforward—most of that depth in the tinga came from chipotles in adobo, while simmered tomatoes and onions formed the base of the sauce. Of course, after I got started, I found there are some key details necessary to making truly excellent chicken tinga.

Starting Simple

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For my first batch of chicken tinga, I decided to do the least amount of work necessary—why do more if you can get a great recipe with the fewest ingredients and steps. I started by sautéing onions and garlic, and then added a can of diced tomatoes, chopped chipotles, and some of the adobo sauce from the chipotle can.

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I then puréed it all in a blender until smooth and tossed it into a pot to simmer with chicken stock and a bay leaf until it was slightly thickened. Finally, I shredded and stirred in poached chicken breasts. It was certainly quick and easy, but it suffered in so many ways.

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First, the tinga lacked the depth I'm used to—a fresh tomato flavor dominated and the chipotles seemed to contrast more than complement. The flat sauce tasted like it was having a bit of an identity crisis, and the chicken only made things worse.

Those chicken breasts lacked flavor and moisture, leaving the whole dish insipid and dry. This tinga would never pass muster on a Fiesta Friday, so I knew I had some work to do to bring it up to snuff.

Small Changes, Big Payoff

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Looking at what I had, where I wanted to go, and not wanting to over-complicate the recipe, I began by making some small changes that I thought would address each problem.

Obviously the basic canned tomatoes weren't cutting it, so I switched to fire-roasted tomatoes, which have bits of char and a deep roasted flavor that I thought would work with, rather than against, the chipotles. I also added a diced tomatillo, which I browned alongside the onions. I increased the amount of chipotles and adobo sauce, threw in a bit of Mexican oregano, and swapped the chicken breasts for more flavorful and juicy poached chicken thighs.

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This recipe didn't require much more work than the original, but boy did it taste better. Given their central role in the dish, the fire-roasted tomatoes made a big difference, giving the final sauce a more robust flavor. Best of all, it tasted like it took way longer to cook than it actually did.

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The tomatillo also added an undercurrent of tartness that I hadn't even realized was missing until I tasted it. The extra chipotles and adobo increased the essential smoky, earthy, and spicy components, while the far juicier chicken thighs were obviously the right way, adding to, instead of detracting from, the overall tinga experience.

I was pretty damn happy with this tinga, but I thought I could do a little better, so I kept all the ingredients the same but tweaked the process for a third attempt.

Taking Tinga Further

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Chicken thighs are such a great source of flavor and fat that I figured I could get more milage out of them if I didn't poach them. Instead, I realized that if I seared the thighs first, I could enhance the sauce with all the fat and brown bits left in the pan. Then, after searing, I could finish cooking the thighs in the sauce as it simmered, which would impart flavor that's otherwise lost when they're poached separately.

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I left the skin on the thighs as a barrier between the meat and heat, and let them cook skin-side down in a hot Dutch oven until they were very well browned. Setting them aside, I then cooked the onions, garlic, and tomatillo in what was now a mix of both olive oil and rendered chicken fat.

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Once the sauce and thighs had cooked, I discarded the skin and pulled the meat off the thighs. As I separated the chicken into long strands, I noticed that this chicken was even more tender than the thighs I had poached in my prior attempt. This could have been a result of the cooking method, but more likely it was due to the fact that I had kept a more watchful eye on the temperature of the thighs as they slowly cooked in the sauce, stopping when they reached 165°F on an instant-read thermometer. Either way, it felt like greater success right off the bat, and one taste of this tinga confirmed my suspicions.

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It had all the layers of the previous recipe, but just enough extra flavor from the thighs to edge it out in a side-by-side comparison. This was definitely the tinga I wanted in my tacos, so after what had been just over three hours in the kitchen, it was finally taco time.

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Piled into toasted corn tortillas and topped with tomatillo salsa, onion, cilantro, and cotija cheese, these tinga tacos are quite a treat. They're balanced and robustly flavored—exactly the type of dish that can give my all-time favorite al pastor a run for its money. Tinga is so tied to my work lunches that I felt a little pang of guilt enjoying such a great version without my co-workers, but I didn't spend too much time worrying about that—I had already moved on to an activity more suited to the day. Namely, Siesta Saturday.

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