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!
13 Responses to “Four chiles, one day: a marathon chile en nogada tasting in Mexico City”
  1. Cindy Carcamo September 9, 2011
    • Lesley September 10, 2011
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  6. Platanos, Mangoes and Me! September 12, 2011
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