On the Range: Chalupas
Of course you know what constitutes a tostada. That's a flat, crispy disc made from corn, then loaded with all sorts of freight including lettuce, tomatoes, beans or meat, cheese, possibly pico or crema, and topped with salsa. Just like a perfect little Mexican salad. In fact, I remember a time several years ago when tostadas were listed in the salad section of some menus, rather than with the appetizers or entrees.
In short, the concept of tostada is quite easily understood. So what's a chalupa? Same thing?
Well, yes and no, depending on how they're made. Robb Walsh notes in The Tex-Mex Cookbook that "Sometimes the word [chalupa] is used interchangeably with tostadas, which means fried tortillas." Indeed that seems to be the case in many Tex-Mex joints around town, where both chalupas and tostadas take the form of flat fried discs. In such establishments, the term "tostadas" is often used to denote discs topped with queso or guacamole only, while the term "chalupas" is reserved for the more elaborately topped discs.
Nonsense, retorts esteemed Mexican cookery guru Diana Kennedy. In her book The Art of Mexican Cooking, she makes the distinction this way:
"No, (chalupas) are not flat and fried; those are tostadas. And, no, they did not originate in California. Chalupas, oval-shaped masa snacks, are named for the small canoes, chalupas, that have been used since Pre-Columbian times in the waterways between the chinampas, the floating gardens of Xochimilco. Chalupas are regional antojitos ('little whims', or appetizers), found only in and around Mexico City, as far away as Puebla."
In other words, tostadas should be round, and chalupas should be shaped like, well, little canoes. And they are baked first. In The Book of Latin American Cooking, Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz describes their preparation: "Pinch off a piece of tortilla dough....Flatten it into an oval on a tortilla press, or pat it into shape by hand. Bake on a comal or griddle in the usual way, then pinch up a ¼-inch rim all the way round. Fry in vegetable oil or lard on the flat side. Some cooks spoon a little hot fat into the chalupa when frying it. Use any filling, but the most usual is shredded chicken or pork, crumbled or grated cheese, and a red or green chile sauce."
Chalupas prepared with this method will yield an almost delicate crunch rather than the fried crispiness of the tostada. Some of the establishments featuring interior of Mexico cooking may be the places to search for these chalupas. For the more conventional Tex-Mex crispy style, you can go to a joint like Grandpa Tony's near Love Field, where you can get three chalupas topped with beans, ground beef or chicken for a bargain price. The service is fast and friendly, and the chalupas and tostadas appear identical except for toppings. In any case, the chalupas will look like perfect little Mexican salads.