Tortilla Soup belongs in the cinematic category of culinary porn alongside ”Babette’s Feast” and ”Like Water for Chocolate.” A refried version of Ang Lee’s 1994 Taiwanese film ”Eat Drink Man Woman,” director Maria Ripoll’s mouthwatering farce uses food prep as foreplay, and overflows with loving close-ups of exotic Mexican meals. But just when you think you’ve accidentally tuned in to ”Food Network After Dark,” you get wrapped up in ”Tortilla”’s story. Martin Naranjo (Hector Elizondo), a widowed L.A. chef, slowly loses control of his three grown daughters: Leticia (Elizabeth Peña), a repressed chemistry teacher who strikes sparks with her school’s goofy baseball coach (Paul Rodriguez); Carmen (Jacqueline Obradors), an M.B.A. pondering a job in Barcelona; and Maribel (Tamara Mello), a free spirit who’s postponing college to ”find herself.” The setup seems a tad too schematic, and the daughters never quite emerge as three-dimensional characters. At times, the movie smacks of a standard-issue Hollywood chick flick, especially in the obligatory scene where the women bond by singing and dancing in a kitchen (to Doris Day’s ”Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps”).
Yet Elizondo’s endearingly low-key performance ultimately engenders such goodwill that these quibbles seem moot. The role is reminiscent of his underrated work as Matt Dillon’s overprotective dad in Garry Marshall’s ”The Flamingo Kid.” Elizondo’s frequent collaborations with the shtickmeister (most recently in ”The Princess Diaries”) have sharpened his comic timing. He does a terrific slow burn, and a priceless double take when Raquel Welch — as a three-time divorcée who’s set her sights on making Martin No. 4 — demonstrates her stunning flexibility while stretching before a jog. Even as a sexagenarian, Welch is ”Tortilla Soup”’s tastiest dish.