One of my favorite restaurants back when I lived in America was The Cliffhouse in La Quinta, California. My parents enjoy the desert so every weekend we’d head from our beach city to the hot desert to relax. I know, it didn’t make a lot of sense to me as a kid either. Almost every trip we would grab dinner at the bar of The Cliffhouse, a well done place with a fantastic view over the desert. And my favorite order, their Tequila Chicken Penne.
I’ve been trying to recreate The Cliffhouse’s tequila chicken penne for years and was never able to get it exactly right. When you see the recipe you’ll probably think, “wow, it’s not even that complicated” and you’d be right. I guess I had to just think about the ingredients individually before cooking.
The chicken uses a dry rub of a few simple spices. For this recipe just cube up two chicken breasts and place in a bowl. Add in a tablespoon of garlic powder, a tablespoon of sweet smoked paprika, a teaspoon of freshly cracked black pepper, a teaspoon of dry chili flakes, and a teaspoon of salt.
Cover the bowl with plastic and set in the fridge for 2 hours. If this seems like a lot of seasonings just note that when the chicken cooks some of the spices will flavor the cream and pasta so it won’t be overpowering.
The three main produce ingredients are garlic (2 cloves), shallot (1) and a red chili pepper (1). Rough chop the garlic, finely slice the shallot, and slice the chili pepper on the bias for presentation.
In a pan on medium add a couple tablespoons of olive oil and then the shallots. Stir them around until they are translucent, but we don’t want them to burn. If you notice them browning then lower the heat and add a splash more olive oil to cool down the pan.
When the shallots begin to get translucent then add in the chili pepper slices stir everything up. If you don’t like heat that much you can de-seed the pepper since that is where most of the capsaicin (spicy chemical) is stored.
Next, turn the heat up a bit and add the chicken and garlic. Make sure to stir or shake the pan a lot because we don’t want anything to burn, but we do need high heat for the next step. Saute the chicken for about 2 minutes, moving the ingredients around the pan. At this point you can start boiling your penne pasta (200 grams) in another pan/pot of salted boiling water.
Finally it’s tequila time! Now I really suggest not using a great tequila since we are cooking with it. The same philosophy goes with cooking with any booze, drink the good stuff, cook with the cheap stuff. Here I just pour in 60 ml (2 shots) of white tequila by Jose Cuervo. There is a high possibility your pan flames up. This isn’t a problem and will actually give the garlic a nice bit of caramelization.
After the flames go away shake the pan around for a few seconds and then lower the heat back to medium. We want to cook off most of the alcohol, but we don’t want to burn any of the ingredients. By now you should notice the shallots have reduced to almost invisible, the chili has softened, and the chicken is cooked through.
Into the pan add 120 ml (about a half cup) of heavy cream and mix everything around. Test your pasta for done-ness and spoon over two tablespoons of the pasta water. Mix the pan up and then drain your pasta. Add spinach to the pan and stir it in until it is wilty. There’s no real measurement for how much spinach to use, I just add two handfuls into the sauce to wilt a lot, and then add one more handful after I mix up the pasta to par-cook it.
I mix together the pasta with the rest of the ingredients and add more spinach until I like the amount. It’s really entirely up to you though, if you don’t like fresh spinach in pasta. The original recipe from The Cliffhouse comes with cheese, but I really don’t think this tequila chicken penne NEEDS it. However I’m pretty sure they just use some shredded mozzarella that is mixed in at the end, so you can absolutely do that if you want.
Tequila Chicken Penne
- 2 Chicken Breasts cubed
- 1 tbsp Garlic Powder
- 1 tbsp Paprika sweet smoked
- 1 tsp Dry Chili Flakes
- 1 tsp Black Pepper freshly cracked
- 1 tsp Salt
- 200 grams Penne Pasta
- 2 tbsp Olive Oil
- 2 cloves Garlic rough chop
- 1 Shallot finely sliced
- 1 Chili Pepper sliced
- 60 ml Tequila the cheap stuff
- 120 ml Heavy Cream About a half cup. aka double cream or whipping cream
- 3 bunches Spinach
- 40 grams Mozzarella optional, shredded
- In a bowl mix together the chicken with the garlic powder, paprika, chili flakes, black pepper and salt. Cover with plastic and set in the fridge for two hours. You don't need to let it set for so long, I just like to do so.
- In a pan on medium heat add the olive oil and the shallot. Stir the pan until the shallots get translucent and then add the chili pepper. Turn the heat up to high and add the chicken and garlic and agitate the pan constantly for about two minutes.
- Into the hot pan add the tequila and stand back, the pan will flame up. When the flames die down lower the heat back to medium and stir everything around.
- In another pan/pot bring salted water to a boil and add the penne pasta. Cook until al dente according to your package instructions.
- While the pasta is boiling continue stirring the pan around. When it smells like most of the alcohol has cooked off, pour in the heavy cream. Mix everything around and then add 2 handfulls of the spinach. Stir it in until it wilts and then remove the pan from the heat.
- Remove two tablespoons of the pasta water from the pot and mix it into the pan, then drain the pasta.
- In the pan or pot mix together the pasta with the tequila chicken cream sauce. Give everything a good toss and then add in the last of the spinach and mix that around as well.
- Plate and add cheese if you want.