Four chiles, one day: a marathon chile en nogada tasting in Mexico City

Chiles en nogada season starts in Mexico City toward the end of July. By two weeks ago, I hadn’t even tasted one in Mexico yet, which I considered a personal flaw. (I’m hard on myself.)

Then I met a new friend at the end of one of my mezcal tours. He’s a food enthusiast, too, and he suggested that we gather a group and spend the day tasting them. I loved this idea. I wrote him back: “Me encantaría!!”

So he created a Google Map and we both added restaurant suggestions. Our criteria were that the restaurants needed to be places we’d never been before. And they should be more or less in the same area, since we’d be trying them in the same day.

We decided we’d try four chiles in one day, with a fifth option. Of course we knew the chile en nogada is not a light food. So there’d be four of us, which meant a total of one chile per person each at the end of the day. We’d also order appetizers and drinks. (I stayed at the gym an extra-long time that morning, just to have some space.)

Here’s how the tasting went down. For more on what exactly comprises a chile en nogada, check out the post I wrote on it last year.

First stop: Aguila Real in the Centro Histórico

I’d read about Aguila Real in one of my Mexico City guidebooks, and the author had talked about how beautiful the place was and how it deserved more clients. It’s a tranquil spot amid the chaos of the Centro, housed inside an old mansion on Mesones street. Most tables lie in a sunlight-filled atrium, and flowers and plants tumble out of window boxes on the second floor.

It was still technically breakfast time when we arrived at 12:45 p.m., so I ordered a concha. Octavio, my new friend, told me the staff baked them in-house. The concha was okay. Not spectacular, but fine.

We decided to order an appetizer, too, since all of us were hungry. The salpicon de pescado sounded good — usually a salpicón is a cold salad with shredded meat. It arrived warm and tasted like it’d been covered in soy sauce and salsa Maggi. Hmmm. This didn’t bode well for the chile.

The chile, once delivered, had a funny looking aluminum-foil party hat. Festive, I guess? It wasn’t bad. The picadillo had the requisite chopped fruit and maybe slightly more tomatoes than I would’ve used. But it didn’t stand out in any way. Octavio called this “sabor cantinesca,” or “cantina-flavored.” I took this to mean homestyle-ish — in cantinas, you often get food for free — but not memorable. For my tastes, the nogada was too sweet. It just kind of sat on your tongue, coating it in a thin film.

Aguila Real Chile Break-down
Sweet or savory: Very sweet
Capeado? No
Nogada notes: It has cream cheese.
Would I come back and order this again? No
Price: 180 pesos

Aguila Real
Mesones 87 esq. 5 de Febrero, Col. Centro
5709-7300

2. Mercaderes in the Centro Histórico

I didn’t know much about Mercaderes, located on Calle 5 de Mayo in the Centro Histórico. It turns out it’s quite elegant — soft lighting, white tablecloths, even a man playing adult contemporary cover songs from a keyboard in back. (The Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun” played while we were eating our chile. Coincidence?)

This seemed like a place where one would order wine, so we did. We picked a bottle of L.A. Cetto’s Don Luis on the waiter’s recommendation.

The waiter described the chile has having the “typical” mix of chicken, beef and pork, plus acitrón, almonds and dried fruits. (Ojo: chicken in a chile en nogada is not typical.) The nogada sauce, meanwhile, had a touch of amaretto and condensed milk.

It sounded too sweet for me, and it was: the combination of the sweet filling and the lechera-laced sauce practically created a dessert. But the cinnamon and clove in the picadillo stood out, and a complimentary glass of pomegranate juice on the side was an interesting touch. Plus the staff venerated the chile here. The waiter prepared it tableside, delicately spooning over dollops of nogada, and then sprinkling the top with pomegranate seeds.

Overall, it was too sweet for me, but some of my other dining companions liked it.

Mercaderes Chile en Nogada
Sweet or savory: Sweet
Capeado: No
Nogada notes: No cream cheese, but it does have condensed milk and amaretto.
Would I come back and order this again? Maybe. I’d definitely come back to try out the other things on the menu.
Price: 210 pesos

Mercaderes
Av. 5 de Mayo 57, esquina con el Zócalo
5510-2213

3. Convento de Tecamachalco in Tecamachalco

I’d read about this place on Nicholas Gilman’s blog. A commenter had written that his mother ordered chiles from the convent in Tecamachalco every year. At the mention of the word convent, my heart quickened. Was it possible to still obtain a chile en nogada from a convent in Mexico? The chile en nogada had been invented in a convent — not in Tecamachalco, but in Puebla.

I put in an order the day beforehand. Octavio graciously drove us, and so we arrived at a yellow house in Tecamachalco around 4 p.m. We buzzed and a woman’s voice answered. “Sí?” About 10 minutes later, a nun with a radiant smile and a navy blue and white habit opened the door. She carried a plastic grocery bag. Inside were the chiles, one capeado, and one not. The nogada and pomegranate seeds had been placed in separate containers.

I asked the nun if she had a plastic fork, by chance, so we could eat in the car. She looked at me strangely and shook her head. The chile had to wait until we got back to my house.

Later that night, I tried a piece. The capeado was definitely the thickest I’d seen — the chile looked like it’d been wrapped in an egg pancake. I poured over the nogada sauce and took a bite. Sweet. Spongey. Not too bad. I’d eat it again, if I lived in the neighborhood. Otherwise probably not.

Convento de Tecamachalco Chile en Nogada
Sweet or Savory: Sweet
Capeado: You can get either way. The capeado is quite thick, however.
Nogada notes: We didn’t ask. I was dazzled by the nun’s smile.
Would I order this again? If I lived in the neighborhood I would probably go back. And I’d be interested in buying other foodstuffs they might sell. Gotta support the cause.
Price: 100 to 120 pesos per chile.

Convento de Tecamachalco: To order a chile, call 5589 1968.

4. Nicos in Azcapotzalco

Now, I will fully admit that I’m a little biased on this one, because I’ve been to Nicos before and I adore the place. I hadn’t, however, tried their chile en nogada — and two of the four in our group hadn’t been there at all. We arrived on the latter end of lunch time, around 5 p.m.

We ordered appetizers — vegetable soup and sopa seca de natas — and the boys ordered beer. Then it was time for the chile.

It had the least ingredients of any that we tried. The nogada was just milk, walnuts and a dollop of goat cheese. No sherry. The picadillo held a mix of pork and beef, nuts, and I believe dried fruit. No acitrón — Chef Gerardo Vázquez Lugo explained to us afterward that he doesn’t buy it because it’s over-harvested.

The chile might’ve been the simplest, but it almost the most balanced. The slight heat from the poblano (one of the few that had actually been hot, of those we tried that day) melded perfectly with the picadillo and the creamy nogada. And the nogada! Oh man. I wanted to bathe in the stuff. It weighed just the right amount in your mouth: not too heavy and gloppy, but not thin either. It was everything you’d want crushed, peeled walnuts to be.

We ended the meal with mezcal and two desserts, including a tomatillo tart topped with ice cream.

Nicos Chile en Nogada
Sweet or Savory: Savory
Capeado: You can get either way. We chose capeado, and I’d recommend it that way. It wasn’t overly eggy.
Nogada notes: Milk, goat cheese and walnuts. Ya.
Would I order this again? In a heartbeat.

Nicos
Avenida Cuitláhuac 3102, Col. Clavería
5396-7090

FINAL TALLY

We ended our journey at 9 p.m., about eight hours after we started. I was stuffed but didn’t feel ill. (A good sign.) Think going to the gym was key.

Overall, I liked the chile from Nicos the best, followed by Mercaderes, the nuns’ chile, and then Aguila Real. Let me stress that none of these chiles were bad. My taste, however, leans toward savory, so those are the chiles that I like best.

If you know of any other spots to get a great chile en nogada en DF — besides Azul Condesa, where I’ve already been — feel free to let me know below. The tasting can continue next year!

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13 Responses to “Four chiles, one day: a marathon chile en nogada tasting in Mexico City”
  1. Cindy Carcamo

    OK. So can we go to Nicos when I’m back in Mexico City… if it’s Nogada season, of course! I love you review.

    • Lesley

      Thanks Cindy! And yes, definitely Nicos when you’re back in town. I’m sorry again about the other place. :(

  2. Steve Vender

    Great post, Lesley. Thoroughly enjoyable in that you had me tasting the chiles en nogada with each of the bites you took. It made me remember the first one I had, in Melaque, a small beach town in Jalisco. This very sweet family that owned a small hotel and restaurant used to feature them as a special, but this was when we always go in December. I didn’t realize that it was a dish that is best enjoyed in July. The places you listed are going on our “to do” list for our trip to Mexico City in December. Thank you.

    • Lesley

      Hi Steve: You’re welcome! Glad you found it helpful.

  3. Brian

    I’m having trouble finding granadas — pomegranates — here in Gringolandia even though they’re in season. I remember just a few weeks ago I picked them right off the tree in Tepoztlán. It isn’t a proper chile en nogada without that sweet acid bright red flavor.

    Gringo peaches are worth the deprivation, though.

    There’s a fancy restaurant here called Frida that makes fairly authentic mexican food. The outside of their chile en nogada is fine, but their picadillo has deep gingo influence. It’s just very, very beefy. If a Mexican cook ever wanted you to taste the meat for its own sake, it would at least be pork.

    *If you know of any other spots to get a great chile en nogada en DF*

    If we’re mentioning places, it’s obligatory to point out the Hostería de Santo Domingo in the Centro Histerico. It’s on Belisario Dominguez (two blocks north of Donceles) esq. Palma. It’s in part of a sixteenth century convent where they’ve been serving chiles en nogada continuously since 1860.

    • Obet

      Agree with Brian, the Hostería Santo Domingo’s chiles deserves a bite.

      • Lesley

        Got it. Actually, another friend recommended the place, but I think Octavio had already gone there. We’ll add it to the list for next year. Thanks for the tip.

  4. Bret

    Anyone know of a vegetarian chile en nogada that’s worth seeking out?

    • Lesley

      Hi Bret: I haven’t seen a vegetarian chile en nogada anywhere. Maybe in California?

  5. Don Cuevas

    Gracias, Lesley, to have made this brave tasting series. I would never be able to do so, because I have rarely found chiles en nogada to be a dish that pleases me. It’s just too much of muchness: too many complex elements, most of which are, IMO, incompatible, usually capeado which gets soggy under a tepid, excessively rich nogada. Sorry, it just isn’t for me. Oh,sure. The pomegranate seeds are kind of nice.

    By the way, the first chile en nogada I tried was at the famed Hostería de Santo Domingo in México, DF. It was totally overwhelming in its excesses and I could only eat about one third before I gave up in disgust and disappointment.

    But, in an effort to be fair, on our next visit to La Mesa de Blanca in Ziracuaretiro, Michoacán, will try it again. Chef Blanca Vidales has made me an offer. She will give our group a chile en nogada to try. If we like it, we can order more, or not. I figured that if anyone would do a good job preparing this dish, it would be her.

    I have thought of committing a culinary heresy by reconstructing the traditional dish into a modernized, lightened version. I may yet bring this project to fruition. Bear with me while I think about it.

    Saludos,
    Don Cuevas

    • Lesley

      Hi DC: I will be awaiting your report… I’m intrigued by the idea of a modern, light version. The key would be to keep the integrity of the dish intact. (Not to put any pressure on you.)

  6. Platanos, Mangoes and Me!

    As usual a trip worth while…what beautiful pictures.

  7. Stuart Brock

    To be honest I’ve never tried a Chile en Nogada before. Maybe it’s just that time of day, but your blog has really made me want one! Great pictures and a good read, thanks!

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