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When I think about Mexican soup I automatically gravitate toward a classic tortilla soup. It is simple in ingredients, bright and fresh, and very comforting. My best version of tortilla soup is vegetarian. I don’t eat animal protein at every meal. As much as I enjoy clean poultry and fish, I probably eat more fruits and vegetables than protein and grains.
Classic tortilla soup fits the bill with a vegetable broth blended with charred garlic, onions, tomatoes, and mild chili peppers. Of course, because this is Mexican, there are some regional seasonings and corn tortillas in the soup. The best part of this soup is the garnishes, which include the crispy tortilla strips.
I know there are some very complex Mexican tortilla soup recipes that include lots of ingredients and shredded chicken. These soups are good for sure. But for this recipe, I am keeping it very basic and you can add anything you want to jazz it up. This is just the best Mexican soup that is excellent all by itself and can also be the base for building on to create something more personalized. Every week or two, I make a serious bone or vegetable broth to enjoy all week by itself or with whatever I want to add to it. Think of this Mexican soup base as that.
One of the keys to the deep flavor of this soup is by charring the garlic, onions, tomatoes, and chilis before adding them to the broth. You can do this by grilling them over a charcoal fire, searing them in a hot cast-iron skillet, or roasting them in a hot oven or under a broiler. Don’t be shy about getting some nice black markings on the veggies and fruits. That is where the flavor is. Believe it or not, that black char has caramelized sugars in it. As well, the char on vegetables is a digestive aid because it absorbs toxins and bacteria and sweeps them out of your system.
- 4 whole garlic cloves peeled
- 4 large ripe Roma tomatoes plum tomatoes
- 1 small white onion peeled and sliced in half
- 1 medium dried Anaheim or New Mexico chili pepper stem and seeds removed, sliced in half
- ½ tsp ground cumin
- ½ tsp dried Mexican oregano
- 2 8-inch corn tortillas, torn into smaller pieces
- 6 cups vegetable stock divided
- 1 tsp sea salt + more for finishing the soup to taste
- ½ tsp freshly ground pepper + more for finishing the soup to taste
- 6 corn tortillas sliced into 1-inch strips
- Vegetable oil for frying
- ⅓ cup chopped fresh cilantro leaves
- 2 ripe avocados peeled and diced
- 4 ounces queso fresco crumbled
- 6 lime wedges
- All ingredients ready? Let's begin!
- In a large heavy-bottomed skillet, preferably cast-iron, over medium-high heat (no oil), cook the garlic, onions, tomatoes, and chili pepper until slightly blackened on all surfaces. Turn often with tongs and remove produce as it chars into a blender. This will take approximately 10 minutes.
- Once all the fruits and vegetables are charred and added to the blender, add the cumin, oregano, 2 torn tortillas, and 2 cups of vegetable broth to the blender. Blend until smooth.
- In a soup pot over medium-high heat, add the remaining 4 cups of broth. To that, add the blended soup, salt, and pepper. Stir to combine well. Bring this to a boil. Reduce the heat to a low simmer and continue to cook for 20 minutes.
- While the soup is cooking, prepare the toppings: cilantro, avocados, queso fresco, and limes. And, make the crunchy tortilla strips. In the same skillet used to char the vegetables over medium-high heat, pour in enough oil to reach a height of 1/2 inch. Add 1/2 the tortilla strips and fry until crisp, about 2 minutes.
- Remove with the tongs to paper towels to drain. Repeat with the remaining tortilla strips. Sprinkle a little salt over the warm fried tortilla strips.
- When the soup is finished simmering, check the seasoning and add more salt and pepper, if desired. Stir in the cilantro. Ladle the soup into serving bowls and top with avocados, cheese, and tortilla strips.
- Serve immediately with a wedge of lime on the side.
Notes & Tips
- If you don’t have a cast-iron or heavy-bottomed skillet to char the fruits and aromatics, you can blacken them under a broiler or grill them. If grilling garlic, use a whole head with the skin on so it will sit on the grill grates. Then, just extract 4 cloves and save the rest for another dish.
- Don’t skip the tortillas when blending the soup. These act as a slight thickener.
Substitutions, Shortcuts & Additions
- Roma Tomatoes: Fresh ripe tomatoes are ideal for making tortilla soup. Vine-ripened tomatoes or heirloom tomatoes from the farmer’s market are fine substitutions for Roma or plum tomatoes. If it is winter and tomatoes aren’t in season, a good substitution and shortcut are canned fire-roasted diced tomatoes.
- Anaheim Chili: Anaheim chili peppers aren’t terribly spicy. An acceptable substitute would be a poblano chili. If you don’t want any heat, use 1/2 a red or green bell pepper. For an extra kick, try a jalapeño or serrano pepper.
- Vegetable Stock: If you aren’t a vegetarian, you can make this soup with chicken stock for a little more depth of flavor.
- Tortilla Strips: To save a step, you can use corn tortilla chips for topping the soup. I like the tortilla strip chips. Or, you can just break some tortilla chips over the soup.
- Queso Fresco: Queso fresco cheese isn’t something many people keep in their fridge on a regular basis. You can substitute with crumbled feta or grated cheddar.
- Additional Toppings: A common tortilla soup topping is crema or sour cream. You could use plain yogurt also. You might want to skip the cheese if using sour cream or yogurt. I have been on a sprout kick of late and love topping soups with broccoli sprouts or pea shoots for added freshness. Another pop of freshness and crunch is thinly sliced red radishes. You can also top this soup with thinly sliced jalapeño peppers for additional spice.