Chiles en nogada
Sometimes you can fall in love with a food even before ever tasting it. Chiles en nogada was like this for me. I first became aware of the Mexican classic when I read about it in Laura Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate. Later, my heart gave a twist when I saw a photograph in Frida's Fiesta: Recipes and Reminiscences of Life with Frida Khalo: a bold green poblano pepper reclining against bone white walnut sauce, adorned with ruby red pomegranate seeds. They were the colors of the Mexican flag, arranged across one of Frida's Puebla plates. The dish looked like it came straight out of one of her paintings.
After moving to California, I asked every person who might know where I could find the fabulous chiles en nogadas. I got only wet-blanket responses -- restaurants only served it during limited periods and when they did it was usually the one thing to avoid on the menu, oversweet and fussy. But this only fueled my desire and made me more determined in my pursuit.
I swore that, if need be, I would do it myself and vowed the minute I spotted pomegranates in the markets I would make them. By luck, or coincidence, or simply because nothing spells fall harvest like pomegranates and freshly gathered walnuts, Gourmet's September issue featured a recipe. But when I read it I balked. The process would probably take three days: one to braise pork shoulder and chop a multitude of ingredients including onion, garlic, tomatoe, peaches and apricots, raisins and pine nuts, green apple and ripe plantains for the picadillo filling, another to roast a dozen or so poblano chiles and stuff them, yet another to shell walnuts and painstakingly remove their papery skin, not to mention seeding the pomegranates. Swamped with matters of lesser importance, I sadly watched the weekends go by, without my chiles en nogada.
Then, I came across a certain Babita, a lovely little hole-in the wall restaurant stuck in the middle of largely Chinese neighborhood in San Gabriel. I had read a favorable review by LA Weekly's Jonathan Gold and had been calling the restaurant for some weeks to see if chiles en nogada had arrived. Each time the desponse-inducing answer was "not yet, maybe in a few days" --the chiles on the markets were not ripe enough, the pomegranates not red enough.
Last night my long-standing passion was consumated. Was there even a twinge of disappointment? Not in the least. The dish lived up to all my expectations and dreams: it was smooth, exuberant, oozing of porky goodness. I went home excited and happy, my first attraction intact. If only all our crushes could end like this.
1823 San Gabriel Blvd.
San Gabriel, CA 91776
(The tiny restaurant which seats about 30 is run by the charming Berrelleza family. Closed Mondays)