Chiles en Nogada is like no entree you’ve ever tried. It doesn’t belong in a takeout box or microwave and in Mexico, it’s only available for a brief season – late August to early October.
It’s from Puebla and was invented in 1821 when a group of nuns wanted to impress a delegation of visiting Spaniards and celebrate Mexican independence. The visit took place in early fall, when fruits like apples and peaches and walnuts were in season.
The nuns drew inspiration from their flag: a green poblano pepper, roasted and peeled with the seeds removed, a white sauce made with seasonal fresh walnuts, Mexican crema and a dash of rum, and a pop of red from pomegranate seeds. The pepper is stuffed with picadillo, a combination of chopped chicken, pork, cooked with garlic, tomato, and fruits: apples, pears, peaches and raisins, covered in sauce and topped with parsley and pomegranate seeds. The dish went over well – people “fell in love with Mexican food and the Chiles en Nogada and now it’s the symbol of Puebla within Mexican Gastronomy,” explains Chef Ivan Garcia of Mesa Coyoacan in Williamsburg, one of the few restaurants in New York to serve it.
Fast forward 197 years and Chiles en Nogada remain rare. In Mexico, it’s seasonal and in New York, it’s unfamiliar. It’s complicated to prepare and sweeter than the entrees Americans associate with Mexican cuisine. These challenges energize Chef Ivan Garcia, who learned how to make the dish from nuns while at culinary school in Puebla. He grew up in Mexico City, with relatives from all over Mexico exposing him to the breadth of the country’s 31 states and their cuisines.
After nearly five years in Puebla, Garcia traveled the country, collecting recipes from grandma’s as he went from Oaxaca to Chiapas to Guerrero to Veracruz, trying to learn the most popular and traditional dishes. In Mexico, “every single state has different culture, different traditions, from food to dance, it’s all totally different.” He took fastidious notes and makes small changes to the regional dishes, using reposado Tequila in addition to rum in his Chiles en Nogada sauce, using organic meats, avoiding lard, and adding more vegetables, but sharing tradition is the goal.
Garcia moved to New York in 2001 and cooked for seven years at Barrio Chino, a trendy restaurant on the Lower East Side. He started serving Chiles En Nogada there, and “people just loved it”. He also discovered, while shopping in January, that in New York at least, it could be a year round option, thanks to the availability of the ingredients.
The people who order it are either trying the dish for the first time or utterly thrilled to encounter it in New York. When Garcia opened Mesa Coyoacan nine years ago with business partners Gerardo Zabaleta and Jorge Boetto, he knew he had to put it on the menu, which also includes hard to find dishes like huitlacoche tacos (a black corn fungus that’s absolutely delicious) and seafood stew from Veracruz. Garcia’s waiters help orient guests, “they know everything about the menu,” he says proudly.
Garcia got the itch to open his own restaurant after years at Barrio Chino and landed in Williamsburg by chance; he happened to visit one day and liked how it felt compared to the expensive and crowded options in Manhattan. It took a few months to convince his business partners but they have no regrets. They own two other restaurants in the area, all named after neighborhoods in Mexico City: Zona Rosa, a casual taqueria in Williamsburg and Guadalupe Inn, a more modern restaurant in Bushwick with a stage for live music and burlesque shows.
At his restaurants, Garcia showcases food from different parts of Mexico. There’s “Molé from Oaxaca, tamales from Chiapas, ceviche from Guerrero, enchiladas from Veracruz,” He’s been recognized by the Mexican Gastronomy Board and the Mexican Consul invited him to an international celebration of Mexican Food in Los Angeles in August, where he someday hopes to open a restaurant.
After decades of professional cooking and a lifetime devoted to the breadth of Mexican cuisine, Garcia admits he has favorites, “I really love Molé and Chiles en Nogada, it’s the top of Mexican cuisine for me, my favorite thing from Mexico.”
Photos by Paul Bassett for Bushwick Daily
Mesa Coyoacan offers Chiles en Nogada, their signature dish, for $24.
Authentic and seasonal Mexican food right near the L train in Williamsburg.
371 Graham Avenue (Graham Avenue L stop)
Lunch/Brunch Wed- Fri: 12 pm – 5 pm
Sat-Sun: 11 am – 5 pm
Dinner Sun-Thu: 5 pm – 11 pm (bar at midnight)
Fri-Sat: 5 pm – 12 am (bar at 1 am)
+1(718) 782 8171