The first time I ate tortilla soup wasn't during my 23 years on American soil or even during a trip to Mexico—it was when I was living in New Zealand, working in a restaurant with people from all over the world. Every so often, some of us would get a day off and, funny enough, we'd spend that day together, cooking for one another. On one occasion, a German kid I worked with told us he was preparing tortilla soup, which he claimed to have learned how to make during a trip he had taken to Mexico (though thinking back to it, I'm pretty positive he was lying, but that's another story for another time). Either way, he made the soup, and I tasted the soup, and I fell in love (not with the German kid, but with the soup). Crunchy tortilla chips were divided between bowls, and the pasilla chile- and tomato-based broth was ladled over the top. Topped with avocado, cheese, and crema, this dish was perfection.
A few years ago, I left New Zealand and have since traveled to Mexico, where I ordered sopa Azteca at a few random restaurants. And believe it or not, every bowl I tasted was terrible, leaving my craving unfulfilled. After those instances, I didn't really think about the soup much. That is, until recently, when our soup-loving deputy editor Yaran Noti had a birthday coming up, and I knew the way to his heart wasn't with a towering layer cake—it was with soup. So, I prepared him this version from Rick Bayless, which I topped with avocado and a candle. And while it isn't quite the same as the one my friend made for me years ago on the other side of the world, it's still pretty spectacular.