Fideo might be the simplest of Tex-Mex foods.
Small strands of vermicelli, simmered in a broth. That’s the basic sopa de fideo, but it’s also not exactly what fideo means when you’re in San Antonio.
There, a simple fideo quickly transforms into fideo loco, a dish that’s somewhere between a soup and a stew that often contains ground beef or chicken, pinto beans and sometimes potatoes, corn or chopped tomatoes.
I’ve cooked with fideo — usually in a clear broth fideo soup or fideo paella — but I’d never heard of fideo loco until a few weeks ago when I was at H-E-B, picking up a few groceries after school with my kids.
The fideo kits looked like a simple noodle soup kit, but the box with “fideo loco” written in green looked like H-E-B’s spin on Hamburger Helper, but with ground beef, pinto beans and potatoes. The instructions said I could add half a pound of ground beef or chicken if I wanted. “That looks amazing,” my oldest son said before I’d even asked if he wanted to try it.
A few Google searches helped me figure out that fideo loco is a bona fide San Antonio and South Texas specialty, a dish you’ll find in nearly every home, not only when it’s cold or when someone is sick but also during the middle of summer or at the end of a wedding.
Fideo soup is a popular dish in Spain, too, but it seems to have taken on a new life in the hands of Texans and Mexicans. Sometimes it's filled with spiced picadillo instead of plain ground beef, and some people like it with cheese. The inexpensive, easy-to-adapt dish has been around for generations, with some variations dating back to the 1700s, which is when the first written recipe appeared in Mexico, according to Houston food writer Adán Medrano.
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In Texas Monthly last year, Harlingen native Joe Galván said his family's fideo included bone-in chicken and a paste his mother would make with garlic, cumin seeds and peppercorn in a molcajete. "She’d fry a big Spanish onion in a smattering of chicken grease and swish in the paste. It would sizzle in the pan, and soon enough the kitchen would smell fragrant, exotic, a perfume unlike anything else in the bright, white-hot world of high grasses I grew up in," he wrote.
There’s even a Fideo Loco Festival and Cook-off coming up on Nov. 2 at the Alamo Beer Company in San Antonio. (Tickets cost $15 ahead of time or $20 at the door, and there is a VIP option at fideofest.eventbrite.com.)
This is the third year for the festival, so I called up the founder, Roxanne Quintero, an eighth-generation San Antonian, to find out what inspired her to start it. In some ways, it goes back to her great-great-grandfather, Gregorio Esparza, who died at the Alamo. (His brother also fought, but on the Mexican side, which is why Esparza is recorded as the only Texican to have been given Christian burial.)
“I’d like to think that fideo went back as far as them," she says, "but I know it’s been passed on from generation to generation," at least since her great-grandmother.
Quintero ate fideo year-round in her house growing up. “We were a family of six, and it was a cheap meal,” she says. “We had it whenever we had a box of fideo in the pantry and ground beef.”
A few years ago, her nephew was facing some bullying at school, and she was fed up with it. She wanted to raise awareness in a way that would catch the community's eye. "I thought, ‘I’m going to try it through food,’” she says.
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At the inaugural Fideo Loco Festival in 2017, she had 20 home cooks competing, some traveling from Odessa and McAllen, and each fideo had a different culinary fingerprint, some with chunks of tomatoes, others in a tomato sauce, some with no tomato at all. The seafood fideo was a hit, and so was one entry with prime rib.
“It’s never just fideo,” Quintero says. Ground beef is almost always the protein, but sometimes it's chicken, and her husband likes his fideo soupy and with corn.
But you can't use just any kind of thin spaghetti, Quintero says.
The Fort Worth-based Q&Q has been making the little yellow boxes of dried fideo noodles since 1910, and the company recently added a spicy vermicelli option. This fideo is already cut into small pieces, but some cooks use the longer strands of vermicelli that are usually sold in coils. Thin spaghetti, however, won’t work, at least according to Quintero. “That will disqualify you,” she says, only partially in jest.
She still makes plenty of fideo, sometimes in the same pans her grandmother used. Quintero says the secret to making a really good fideo is toasting the noodles until they are a light golden color, a technique that suggests this method of making fideo could have connections to the Middle Eastern pilaf.
She usually cooks the meat in one pan and fries the noodles in another so they cook at the same time before combining them with the broth.
Quintero says she was happy to see a young generation of fideo lovers at the event. “I love the fact that we still serve it and people still love it and the younger generation is beginning to love it,” she says. “I wish my grandmothers were still here to see people sampling their recipes.”
Like Quintero, San Antonio native Erica Garcia makes the dish she same way her mother made it, often using whatever ingredients are in the fridge, including onions, garlic, carrots, celery or zucchini.
“It’s so easy to make, even for picky kids,” says Garcia, who is also helping with the Fideo Loco Festival. “I have a picky eater husband, so he loves it.”
Many people eat fideo without any accompaniments, but Garcia likes to eat hers with a buttered flour tortilla on the side.
Garcia says that like puffy tacos, tamales, barbacoa or conchas, this dish is special to Texans, but especially San Antonians. “It’s San Antonio pride through and through.”
Roxanne Quintero’s family recipe for fideo loco is the perfect starting place to try your hand making it at home. When Quintero is trying to get dinner on the table quickly, she'll use two skillets, but you can make it in one, toasting the fideo in the oil and then removing it while you prepare the meat (and beans and potatoes or other vegetables). If you prefer it less soupy, add less liquid, but don't overcook the noodles. Quintero insists on not stirring the noodles after you've combined the meat and the broth, so put a lid on it, set a time and then leave it alone for 5 to 7 minutes.
— Addie Broyles
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
1 (5-ounce) box Q&Q Fideo
1 pound ground beef
4 ounces tomato sauce
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 1/2 cups water
1 1/2 cups chicken stock
2 cups pinto beans, freshly cooked or, if canned, drained and rinsed
Salt and pepper to taste
Heat the oil in a medium-large skillet over medium-high heat and add the fideo. Toast the noodles until lightly browned, remove them from the skillet, and reserve.
Add the beef to the skillet and cook, using a spatula to break it into small crumbles, until browned through. Add the tomato sauce, onion and garlic powders, water and stock to the pan, then stir in the reserved fideo. Bring to a simmer, cover and cook until the noodles are tender, about 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in the beans, then season with salt and pepper before serving.
— Adapted from a recipe by Roxanne Quintero