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Mt. Signal Cafe - "puffy" quesadillas

This was/is on the old highway into Calexico, stopped there frequently as a kid (ok, a long time ago); they made a "puffy" quesadilla, the likes of which I have never seen elsewhere. Anyone have experience with such things and if so, where?

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  1. if by 'puffy' you just mean thick and made with fresh masa (not from a tortilla) they are fairly common and sometimes called 'estilo DF' (Mexico City style).

    but I am guessing that you really mean puffy, with lots of air, in which case the only thing I can think of that sounds at all similar are the puffy sopes at La Fogata in Salinas, that I first read about in this post by Melanie Wong:


    They are good, and unique in my experience....I could see someone calling them a quesadilla if they had cheese instead of meat....

    1 Reply
    1. re: susancinsf

      no to the first and yes to the second in terms of the description your provided. The "quesadilla" name was applied to the dish by the restaurant and the only filling was cheese.

    2. I am very familiar with those quesadillas because I grew up in Imperial Valley and they are a staple out there. They are called "Special Quesadillas" and are made with a raw flour tortilla that has quesadilla cheese inside and the edges are crimped up like an empanada and they are quickly deep-fried. I make my own and there are still some places in El Centro that you can get them.

      You can find them at Celia's where you can get them with Chili Relleno sauce poured over them - they are soooo light and crispy there (located at the intersection of Imperial Avenue and Adams Ave) and La Salsa (4th street and Adams Avenue). There used to be a little drive through type shack on 4th street that you could grab one and get for the ride back to San Diego but it changed hands...don't know if the new place has it.

      A lot of the restaurants in the area carry them but those are two of the best places to get them.

      5 Replies
        1. re: LisaSD

          LisaSD ~ I too grew up in El Centro and now live in Idaho. I am CRAVING a Special Quesadilla! Would you mind sharing your recipe for making them yourself? Also, I'm not familiar with quesadilla cheese. I always thought they just used jack cheese. I would be forever grateful!!

          1. re: LisaSD

            Lisa - are you sure about that location for Celia's? I don't think that Adams and Imperial intersect. Thanks again, may head up to La Salsa today...

            1. re: ibstatguy

              ibstatguy - Lisa is right about the site for Celia's. The intersection used to be called 4 Corners, by the locals. I ate at Celia's when I visited the Valley a couple of years ago. I think it's run by some of the people that used to work at LaHacienda, now that it's closed. Celia's is excellent.

            2. re: LisaSD

              Holy cow! I grew up in ElCentro as well and haven't thought of the "special quesadilla" in years. I used to get mine at a place next to the Crest of Fox & Crest theaters on main St. Has anyone had one here in SD?

            3. None here in San Diego that I know of...but I'd like to teach them ALL how to make it so I don't have to!

              Bystander, you're right. Celia was a waitress for a lonnngggg time at the Hacienda Imperial airport location and started the restaurant when the Hacienda was torn down. The Hacienda was revived in the meantime and is open on the corner near the courthouse. I heard they were building a new location back in Imperial though.

              As for your request for a recipe for Special Quesadillas, get a bag of La Pina flour if you can find it and make the tortilla recipe on the back of the bag. Put some cheese strips in the middle, fold it over, put water around the edge and crimp the edges and deep fry. No biggie!

              The Queso Quesadilla is made by FUD or Cacique but you can use Monterey Jack if you can't find them. The Queso Quesadilla cheese is more like a mozarella.

              1 Reply
              1. re: LisaSD

                Thanks so much for the info, Lisa. I'll check around for that brand of flour; we have a large hispanic population here so several stores carry specialty things for their culture. I'll keep my fingers crossed but I'll still try to make them regardless. Really appreciate the help. It's also nice to hear from others that are from the Valley.

              2. ibstatguy, Adams becomes Evan Hewes Hwy after you cross Imperial going west...that's probably why you thought that. Celia's in on the north side of the street.

                1. We used to get these at a taco stand "Acapulco" on 3rd St. in L.A. (not the chain). The recipe we use to make them is 1/2 jack cheese 1/2 cheddar cheese in chunks. Spread flour tortilla with cream cheese (yes I really mean cream cheese) and add cheese and ortega green chiles. Roll up tortilla and secure with toothpick and deep fry in pan of oil that covers 1/2 of the rolled tortilla. Fry to golden brown and turn over to fry the other side. Fantastic!! but probably not heart healthy.

                  1. hungerpains, that sounds good too! If it is made with a tortilla that is cooked, then your restaurants version is basically just a fried quesadilla.

                    The "special" quesadilla starts out with a "raw" piece of dough...that's what makes it special. I'm telling you, it could be a huge marketing phenom if someone would do it here in SD...

                    1. I can't believe no one mentioned Camacho's out on Wahl Rd!! I used to live in El Centro about 25 years ago, and I still dream about their Special Quesadillas. Split on open and shove some guacamole and frijoles in there...ummm!!

                      How about the carne asada from the market on 4th? Anyone have a good recipe for that marinade?

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: sissyv

                        I TOTALLY AGREE!! CAMACHO'S!!

                        I also really like the special quesadillas at La Fonda.

                        I've been looking for a recipe for these because you can't find the damn things anywhere but the valley and I am seriously craving a special quesadilla and some good horchata.

                      2. I am from the Imperial Valley and the best special quesadilla's are from La Hacienda (next to the court house). They have the best carne asada burittos and quacamole! I make the special quesadillas from time to time --make tortilla dough, fill it with monterey jack and seal it up and deep fry it in LARD...only way you can get that great flavor...does anyone know any good carne asada recipes from the valley...we order it from Kennedy's Karne, but very expensive to ship.

                        1. Brandi, if you live in the San Diego area - Kennedy's Karne has a location in Escondido. Most carne asada in the valley has ReaLemon juice with garlic, salt and pepper (some add cilantro). That's it!

                          1. Hey there- found this site and saw the talk about the "puffy qesadilla". All the locals know they are called "special quesadillas" (especial). The recipe belonged to a Mr. Caro and his family and is over 50 years old. The only place you can find them is in the Imperial Valley. There are 3 women who can make them like they should be made. One of them being married to Mr. Caro before he passed. I found a trademark on the "La Hacienda" Original Especial Quesadilla. They are the best thing you ever tasted. You can serve them with Chile Rellano sauce or guacamole or you can slit them open and stuff them with whatever you like. You can of course have them shipped anywhere. They are really tasty and kind of a comfort food for me. email auntie.linda@verizon.net for info. I will try to find the website. So glad I found this site.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: LINDA HOPKINS

                              thanks - will await word on how to order

                            2. As an ex desert rat I can't understand how the Vallley's special quesadilla hasn't found its' way into other parts of the country. They are the only known bribe to get my children to visit El Centro in mid August.
                              My youngest carries a picture of one from Camachos on her cell phone and is continuing to search for special quesadillas every time she visits a Mexican restaurant.
                              My family tried the special quesadillas at Celia's,La Hacienda by the Court House(where El Sombrero used to be) and Camachos on our visit last year and the one closest to the old LaHacienda quesadillas was Camachos.
                              We always eat ours plain- of course a bit of Camacho's enchilada sauce might end up on the edge though that usually ends up being added to the machaca burrito.

                              2 Replies
                              1. re: mommyla

                                I wish there was a place over here in San Diego where I could find those quesadillas...

                                1. re: mommyla

                                  I never thought I'd see a discussion of Imperial Valley special quesadillas on chowhound! I, too, am originally from El Centro. My family lived all over the country but went back in 1964 and has been there ever since. These days I go down to visit them every week or two and we generally have dinner at Camacho's, La Hacienda, Celia's, etc. It's a rare meal where no one orders a puffy, tender, delicious special quesadilla. If you find yourself driving along the 8 freeway someday, I highly recommend a stop in El Centro for lunch or dinner. Do it soon, before EC becomes a Sandy Eggo suburb and the young people start losing their charming manners.

                                2. I agree with Linda Hopkins. Special Quesadillas were invented in Imperial Valley. There are at least 6 restuarants in Imperial Valley that serve them. Camacho's, Celia's, La Hacienda El Centro, La Hacienda Imperial, Nana Dora's Brawley and El Zarape in Imperial. I have never seen Special Quesadillas anywhere else but Imperial Valley. Not even in Mexicali, Mexico a city of about a million people just across the border from El Centro.

                                  I think the original La Hacienda (now closed) in Imperial made the best Special Quesadillas.

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: rogerconejo

                                    I think it's safe to say that every Mexican restaurant in the Imperial Valley serves special quesadillas. I know that even places in Holtville serve them.

                                  2. We lived in Imperial Vally most of our lives. We retired to Colorado and missed the local food including quesadillas. We decided to try to make some.

                                    We went to Wal-Mart. They had the following ingredients.

                                    La Abuela Brand Ready-to-Cook Tortillas
                                    These are raw, uncooked tortillas....not the ones already cooked and we use for burritos or tacos.
                                    Weslaco, TX

                                    La Chona Quesadilla
                                    Mexican Shredded Cheese
                                    Houston, TX

                                    We put the cheese on a tortilla, folded the tortilla in half, sealed the edges with a fork, cooked on high heat in olive oil. They were very, very similar to those in Imperial Valley in such restaurants as Camachos Place, Celias, La Fonda, etc.
                                    The package said you can seal the edges with milk or eggwash.

                                    We are happy campers.

                                    1. I think special quesadillas should STAY in the Imperial Valley! If they came to San Diego everyone would know about them and they wouldn't be as special anymore!

                                      6 Replies
                                      1. re: msamaha

                                        I would dearly love for them to be here in San Diego

                                        1. re: ibstatguy

                                          I worked for a restaurant company in SD for a while and there were a couple of us there who were Valley natives; we tried desperately to get one of the chefs to put special quesadillas on the menu, but he just couldn't comprehend how a raw tortilla filled with cheese and deep-fried could possibly be good. It's one of those things that you have to experience before you realize how amazing they are.

                                          For now, I guess just thank your lucky stars that you're only a 1-1/2 hour drive from the only place they are made.

                                          I'm snacking on a special quesadilla and refried beans with Hacienda's fabulous salsa right now from La Hacienda in El Centro (corner of Main & 9th Streets across from the courthouse). Mmmmmm!!!

                                          They are also wonderful at Celia's in El Centro (corner of Imperial Ave and Adams Ave, across from Carl's Jr., behind the auto parts store), and Camacho's (out in the country on Wahl Road, south of the freeway, GoogleMap it for exact location), and La Hacienda in Imperial (Highway 86, a few blocks north of the fairgrounds). Most mom 'n' pop Mexican restaurants in the Valley serve them, but these are the best in my experience.

                                          El Zarape's in Imperial are good, but not the best, although their albondigas is fantastic (Imperial Avenue just south of Barioni Blvd). I don't think Las Salsas (Fourth Street & Broadway) serves them anymore. I've never made it out to Mt Signal Cafe, but I have heard that theirs are very good, too.

                                            1. re: candez

                                              Would you rate La Hacienda's as the best you've found?
                                              I recently tried the ones at Puerto Nuevo. They serve two smaller ones rather than the single large one at Celia's or El Zarape. I liked Puerto Nuevo because its the perfect excuse to sample the 11 or so different Mexican brands of hot sauce they have on the table.
                                              It really is true how the actual dish transcends the description of a deep fried cheese filled raw tortilla...

                                              1. re: ipsit

                                                Sorry for the REALLY delayed response! I'd rate La Hacienda's and Celia's a tie for the best. Hard to choose between those two. They both have flakey and light crusts, just the right amount of cheese, and are fried perfectly. I didn't care for the one I had from Puerto Nuevo, but I was there at the very end of the day and I don't think they were thrilled to have one more customer that day, so I don't think they were exactly offering me their best.

                                                And like someone below mentioned, asking for chile relleno sauce on top makes it even better.

                                                I'm hungry now for a deep fried cheese filled raw tortilla (;->.

                                        2. i'm also from the imperial valley (the lovely el centro part) and eat these things every time i go home to visit the family, but something just happened....i went to ecuador this past week and found more special flipping quesadillas!!

                                          they had a couple different types...small ones called empanadas de queso, which shouldn't seem surprising that someone should put cheese in an empanada...but then they also had the big poofy kind like in the imperial valley...these were called empanadas de viento...i posted more pictures here: http://bluecornface.blogspot.com

                                          oh...and if you happen to search back to the sept 2009 part of the blog that i reference, the special quesadilla my husband is digging into is from celia's in el centro...mmmm...(celia's has the best refried beans ever, by the way...)

                                          1. I'm gonna vote for Celia's for the best special quesadilla and they'll serve it with the Relleno Sauce over it if you want. The Hacienda used to do that but I haven't been to Hacienda in years. I love Puerto Nuevo campechana so I'll try the quesadilla next time I'm down there. Better get down before the heat starts!

                                            Puerto Nuevo
                                            909 S Main Ave, Fallbrook, CA 92028

                                            7 Replies
                                            1. re: JCA

                                              Going back to the "Special Quesadillas", yes, there's still a couple of restaurants in the Imperial County who still makes them. My mother retired as a cook from Celia's restaurant located at the intersection of Imperial and Adams Ave in El Centro CA. She used to make these "Special Quesadillas". My mother tells me that she used to make approximately 200 quesadillas every four days for daily customers. When Celia's restaurant first started, she and her husband Oscar opened up at 808 N. Imperial Ave. El Centro, next to Chief's Auto parts. But before it was called Celia's Restaurant, it was called Monico's Restaurant and that's where my mother started working and met Celia as a waitress. Now, my mother as a retiree, she still makes them here at home for my whole family and friends when ever we have parties, and I'll tell you, "they are so good".
                                              My brother Guale loves them!!!!

                                              And going back to the old "La Hacienda Restaurant" located at the Airport, Mr. Raul Caro (who already passed away) used to be the owner, and Rosa Caro was his wife. They used to make these quesadillas there as well, and Celia used to be a waitress there. Anyway, if you're passing through the Imperial County and want a taste of my mother's "Special Quesadillas" just let me know.

                                              1. re: Junior760

                                                Yes, as I mentioned, my brother Guale/Lupe loves the Special Quesadillas so much, that he even takes some to his friend "MATT" from Las Vegas.

                                                1. re: Junior760

                                                  Oh, that old La Hacienda by the airport. I have such nostalgia for that place. The posters on the wall, the old bar that you had to walk through to get to the cash register (when we were 7 years old, walking into a bar was quite a novelty), the big map of Baja in the waiting area, the tiny bathrooms, and even the spots on the floor that would sink when you walked over them. I loved everything about that place, and was so sad to see it go.

                                                  Mrs. Caro still runs the two locations they have, across the street from the courthouse in El Centro and the new location in Imperial. I always thought they should've designed the new Imperial location with a nod to the character of that old airport location, but alas they didn't.

                                                  1. re: candez

                                                    Candez, I can't believe I found this thread! I was just thinking about those amazing quesadillas at La Hacienda in dear Imperial and decided to try to google-up some memories.

                                                    My family lived there in the late '50's/early '60's and those years are special to me for many reasons including, of course, those amazing quesadillas. (I attended Ben Hulse School, grades K-2.) I returned to La Hacienda a couple of times as a grown-up and they were just as delicious. Do you remember the large painting of a senorita grieving for her fallen matador? I hope to see it one day again at the El Centro location.

                                                    1. re: fullchroma

                                                      I just happened upon this site. I too use to live in EL Centro from '59 until the early 70's. I have so missed "special" quesadillas and have searched off and on over the years for a recipe. I miss La Hacienda down to the cheese that was used on their tacos. I don't know what kind it was, but no taco since has tasted right without it.

                                                      There use to be a place near IVC called something like Tiki Hut, that had some of the best food ever.

                                                      I would adore finding some of these recipes.

                                                2. re: LisaSD

                                                  At the intersection of SR98 and Brockman Road, 7.5 miles west of Calexico, is the former location of the unique "Mount Signal Cafe", currently closed. The business was shown on an episode of "California's Gold". For over 30 years we always made sure to stop here on our way to and from the Colorado River. This 50-year-old restaurant flourished in the era when Mexicali and Tijuana were rivals for the best bullfighters and bulls north of Mexico City. The owner's mom, Maria de Jesus, was a banderillera, known to fans as "Manolita," a member of perhaps the only female bullfighting team ever. Surrounded by hundreds of bullfighting photos, you could enjoy traditional casera (homestyle) Mexican dishes and cold cerveza. We used to keep our eyes open for the old matadors and other locals who would stop in. And of course, the amazing puffy quesadillas!!! Ah, sweet nostalgia...

                                                  1. re: halfmarke

                                                    halfmarke - thanks for your photo; that's the place we ate at when I was a kid

                                                3. I grew up eating at Mt. Signal, Maria Jesus and Her Husband were amazing, they were close to my father, but they treated everyone that walked through those doors with love and importance and the food showed it in the taste, you tasted the love and felt happy when you left.

                                                  Amazing memory, down to the bottles of flavored sodas, and yes the fluffy deep fried quesadillas and chimichangas, WHAT A MEMORY. MISS THAT PLACE. Anyone that has an experience of going and eating there are blessed and will all have their own memories as mine.

                                                  1 Reply
                                                  1. re: kgriffith37

                                                    I too ate at this amazing place with my parents and family. My parents were also friends of the owners, but everyone who visited fell in love with the food and the wonderful people there. When we'd go for dinner I always would go back to the kitchen to watch the ladies. They all would feed me little tidbits and by the time dinner was on the table, I was pretty much full and about to pop. When we moved from El Centro and that awesome food, I was so very sad. Especially after I ordered a quesadilla somewhere else and got a cheese crisp. I live in San Diego and everytime we pass through I think of that food. I was told it had closed and that really made me sad. It was just a little place along a country road, but it was heaven to me!!