Little known and rarely spotted outside of Tucson, the topopo salad is one of the city’s premier contributions to Southern Arizona’s Mexican food lexicon — almost certainly. Its precise origins as well as its unusual name remain a bit of a mystery.
As Sonoran-inspired entrees go, it’s an outlier. Diced lettuce, onions, and tomatoes put in an appearance atop tacos and in ceviches, small salads are sidekicks to the likes of burritos and enchiladas, but elaborate veggie creations rarely take center stage.
Even locally, the topopo keeps a low profile. When I asked the 93-year-old abuelita of my midtown neighborhood, a frequenter of local Mexican restaurants since the 1940s, about her favorite place in town to enjoy the dish, she said she’d never heard of it. Several friends who moved to Tucson more recently were similarly topopo-untutored.
But when quizzed in turn for a brief description of the salad, I was at a loss.
If you Google "topopo" without adding any geographical search terms, the salad turns up in several recipes that credit El Azteco, a restaurant in Lansing, Michigan, as the source. The topopo is described on the restaurant’s menu as:
"A mountain of a salad! The Mexican counterpart to the American chef’s salad with lettuce, tomatoes, chicken, cheese, jalapenos, peas, and scallions. Served on a bed of tortilla chips spread with frijoles, melted cheese and guacamole."
Sounds like nachos on a health kick.
One Lansing restaurant reviewer had some thoughts about the salad’s unusual name:
"Topo, en Español, means ‘great lump.’... El Azteco’s Topopo Salad surely qualifies. This entrée is truly a massive, mammoth and monstrous mound of mouth-watering magnificence."
I was unable to verify the cited definition of the word "topo" in my own Español search. Various Spanish-English dictionaries define it as a "mole" — both as in small furry animal or spy — or, alternatively, a "blunderer, stumbler, awkward person." I unearthed no great lumps. It occurred to me that perhaps the journalist was confusing "topo" with "tope," Mexico’s sometimes monstrous speed bumps.
This made me more dubious than I already was about any midwestern origin claim for the dish. The chef/blogger at Anita’s Table Talk, a Lansing resident, had her own attribution doubts and did some digging. The result:
"Turns out California-based Sunset Magazine published a cookbook back in the early 1970s that featured not only the topopo but a few other favorite recipes on the El Azteco menu. One former El Az employee said the cookbook was hidden under a restaurant counter for reference."
Because I am an east coast transplant, I did not know that, as a friend informed me, "There was a time when every self-respecting middle-class cook in the west owned a selection of Sunset'cookbooks." It was therefore easy for me to borrow a copy of the Sunset Mexican Cookbook in town.
Like El Azteco, the cookbook calls the topopo a "counterpart for our hearty chef’s salad," but adds that it "takes the much more dramatic shape of a mountain or volcano," and that it is "typical of the cuisine shared by the northern state of Sonora and next-door Arizona."
That’s a wide swath of territory. But adding "southern Arizona" or "Sonora" to my Google search bar yielded no hits. Phoenix and Scottsdale? Barely a blip. It was only when I included "Tucson" into the mix that I hit the jackpot, with entries galore for restaurants in all parts of town.
But that still left open the questions of the salad’s origins, name, and distinguishing features.
Mountainous height and, in some cases, volcanoes, remained a common denominator in many local descriptions. Jackie Alpers, an award-winning photographer who created a gorgeous version of the dish for her illustrated Taste of Tucson cookbook, wrote the following as an introduction to the recipe:
"I’ve heard different stories explaining why Tucson’s most iconic salad is made to look like a volcano. One origin story is that Tucson is surrounded by mountains, the most recognizable, Sentinel Peak, also known as ‘A’ Mountain, which is often mistaken for a small volcano. It’s not. But it was formed out of the lava from a volcano that erupted near there 25-million years ago and hardened into black, volcanic rock. In fact, the name Tucson translates into ‘at the foot of the black mountain.'"
One of the "different stories" that Alpers alludes to doubtless comes from El Charro Café, celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2022. In the El Charro Cookbook, authors Jan and Michael Stern quote Carlotta Flores, who claims her great aunt Monica Flin as the topopo’s originator:
"Topopo is an Indian word for volcano. Family history says that [Monica Flin] was inspired to create the monumental meal after gazing upon the volcano Popocatépetl outside Mexico City."
Recently seen on Bravo’s Top Chef, Carlotta is a culinary superstar, so it is with great respect and regret that I confess I could find no volcanic source for the word "topopo" in any Indian language.
I did locate an Indian word that was similar to topopo, however, one that requires only the substitution of a single letter to fit the bill: totopo.
According to Wikipedia:
"The name totopo comes from the Aztec (or Nahuatl) totopochtli, meaning 'toasted thing or thing that crunches when eaten', from the verb totopotza 'to crunch or to toast.’ To differentiate the word from other toasted things, sometimes the compound tlaxcaltotopochtli was used, meaning 'toasted tortilla'. The combined word means, approximately, 'tortillas that are noisy to chew.'"
In Spanish, totopo is invariably defined as a tortilla chip or fried tortilla, with the Nahuatl source often credited in dictionary listings.
This spelling-slip name genesis makes sense. Topopo salads are always served on crispy corn tortillas, whether flat as a tostada, made into a bed of chips, or (occasionally) shaped into a taco bowl. And the definition has some local cred: The crunchy base is the explanation for the name that I got many years ago from La Fuente, where I first sampled the salad.
The restaurant, which opened in 1959 and closed in 2014, was a favorite of the late Willard Scott, the peripatetic "Today Show" weatherman who, I was told, stopped into La Fuente to get the topopo whenever he was in town and considered it unique to Tucson.
From my (admittedly limited) personal experience, I can also attest that it is very easy to mix up the spelling of the salad name. When texting friends to invite them to sample the specialty with me, I sometimes wrote "totopo." But in speech, "topopo" rolls off the tongue much more easily than "totopo."
Try saying each word three times in succession.
Of course, none of this addresses the questions of which cook or restaurateur originally made the slip and decided to use the name for a crunchy-base salad creation — and in what year.
Ouch. Hitting that brick wall hurts.
In spite of the likely origin of its name, fried corn tortillas don’t dominate topopo salads as they do dishes like chilaquiles or nachos. Instead, only a thin layer of chips or a single tostada spread with refried beans — again, a minimal presence — serve as the base for the tower of salad.
Certain ingredients are staples: iceberg lettuce (or, occasionally, romaine); shredded yellow cheese, generally cheddar; tomatoes; green olives; jalapeños; avocados; and, for reasons I have yet to determine, defrosted frozen vegetables, most often peas and carrots. Chilled shrimp, shredded chicken or turkey, and carne seca are the most common centerpieces, and a house salsa, rather than salad dressing, is the usual accompaniment.
That said, recipe variations — especially of the main protein — are not uncommon. A topopo may come with machaca, carne asada, cottage cheese, garlic shrimp, hard-boiled eggs, or even chile con carne, that Tex-Mex interloper. The avocados may appear in a mound of guacamole, rather than in slices. Presentations vary too. Although you’ll find many conical shapes and mounds, some topopos are sunk into bowls. And some of those bowls are made of crispy tortillas and look suspiciously like taco bowls — another Tex-Mex intruder.
I know, I know. Just as few dishes can be traced to a single source, there are no pure Southern Arizona recipes. Crossover is king, and incorporating other influences is essential to keeping traditions fresh. That said, I don’t want to give Yelp! reviewers any excuse to dub our local fare Tex-Mex, as often happens.
Which brings me back to the impossibility of giving a brief but accurate description of the topopo.
After doing my due diligence, I feel comfortable saying, "Originated in Sonora and popularized long ago in Tucson, where it is now found in Mexican restaurants throughout the city, the topopo is an entrée salad generally heaped on top of a tostada or a thin layer of tortilla chips — sometimes in the shape of a volcano — that is spread with refried beans."
Unless you live in Topeka, Kansas.
The topopo appears in the Urban Dictionary as "Members of the Topeka Police Department," with the illustrative sentence "It’s the Topopo!"
Edie Jarolim has worn many hats, including a sombrero on a one-too-many-margaritas night. She earned a Ph.D. in American literature...