Usually appearing on menus in late August ahead of Mexican Independence Day — this year on Saturday, September 16 — the iconic chiles en nogada is a dish to celebrate. Meaning “chiles in walnut sauce,” the plate symbolizes the convergence of religions and traditions that occurred five centuries ago in what is now known as Mexico.
The recipe for chiles en nogada calls for ingredients, flavors, textures, and cooking techniques from across the world. Ground meat (typically beef and pork) is mixed with dried fruits and nuts and swaddled in a mildly spicy poblano pepper. The dish is finished with a light walnut sauce, then sprinkled with pomegranate seeds, and often garnished with parsley. The choice of a poblano pepper — a staple of this delicacy’s birthplace — as the plate’s centerpiece seems like a deliberate act of poetry.
As beautiful as it is delicious — dressed in the Mexican flag’s green, white, and red — chiles en nogada appeals to sight, smell, taste, touch, and identity. Part Spanish and part indigenous, the plate is an allegory of the complexity of the Mexican people. Its emblematic colors and the myths woven around its birth have made chiles en nogada an icon of patriotic pride.
Two well-known legends speak to the creation of chiles en nogada, and both point to Puebla as the fertile Central Mexican ground where it flourished. Surrounded by volcanoes, the colonial city was prosperous and diverse. Its privileged location at the midpoint between Mexico City and the port of Veracruz (the gateway between Spain and the New World) provided its cooks with access to new ingredients and cultures, and thus, culinary sophistication.
A mix of history and myth, the most popular tale places the birth of chiles en nogada at the Convent of Santa Mónica, where Augustinian nuns conjured it up in the 1820s. Famous for their cooking, the nuns were commissioned to prepare a meal for Mexican Emperor Agustín de Iturbide, commander of the Trigarante Army (the unified troops consisting of Spanish and Mexican forces) Iturbide planned to stop in Puebla on his way to Mexico City after signing the Treaty of Córdoba in Veracruz, which declared Mexico’s independence from Spain. His arrival would coincide with the feast of Augustine, his patron saint.
According to legend, to represent the colors of the Trigarante Army, the nuns searched for available green, white, and red ingredients. Iturbide would later design the Mexican flag bearing the same colors.
In his book, Sala de Tapices, Artemio de Valle-Arizpe, a 20th-century writer, added to the dish’s legacy with a story that credits three women — girlfriends of three Trigarante soldiers — with its creation. The sisters, who lived in Puebla, were supposedly excited about the return of their partners and the victory of Iturbide’s mission. The trio asked San Juan Baylón, a patron saint of cooks, for intercession. The women incorporated seasonal ingredients that represented the colors of the Trigarante uniform into their creation.
Both tales recount a delightful plate that represents the identity of a nation and captures the minds and hearts of Mexicans of all walks of life for centuries.
“This is a dish of tradition,” says Alfonso Sotelo at 5 Rabanitos in Pilsen. Sotelo finds great pride in serving a dish “that celebrates Mexico and that represents the flag that we carry in our hearts.”
Beyond the emotions elicited by seeing your country’s emblematic colors on a plate, particularly while being away from it, for many of us, the preparation and enjoyment of a chile en nogada is also an act of communion — an opportunity to bridge the gap that separates us from home, and a means to participate in a collective ritual that is taking place across time and space.
Like many Mexican dishes, making chiles en nogada requires time and hands, and is usually a group activity. Its preparation is a delicate balance between adaptation and preservation. Considering that every cook in every family seems to have a secret recipe, and that the dish’s original ingredients, like candied biznaga — a type of endangered cactus — are no longer available, there is generally room for flexibility within recipes, with one exception: el capeado. For the people of Puebla in particular, el capeado — dipping the pepper in egg batter and then frying it — is fundamental.
Usually appearing on what seems to be every menu on August 28, to coincide with the feast of St. Augustine, the dish recently turned 200 years old. As its popularity continues to skyrocket in Mexico, the long anticipation of enjoying this iconic dish has recently shortened a bit. Provided the availability of the ingredients, this festive delicacy can now be found as early as July.
In Chicago, the plate is also gaining visibility. According to restaurateurs, the demand for chiles en nogada comes from both established fans and new converts who have learned about it through travel, word of mouth, or social media. And while seasonal access may not always be an issue (some eateries do serve them year-round), finding them in Chicago is not always easy.
Here is a list of some of the best and details on their availabilities.
5848 N. Broadway, Edgewater
Much like the nuns from the Santa Mónica convent, Más Allá del Sol’s chef and owner Adáan Moreno humbly shares that when members of local religious leadership tried his food, he was commissioned to cook for a group of visitors including the Archbishop of Mexico City.
Moreno decided to incorporate chiles en nogada into his menu after his customers requested them. The plate is demanding, as it requires several steps: from sourcing the ingredients at their peak; to the preparation of the sauce; to the roasting, peeling, and cleaning of the peppers; to the stuffing, and final assembly.
The delicacy became so popular that Moreno now serves it around Mexican Independence Day and brings it back when the green, white, and red must be broken out (Cinco de Mayo, for example).
This year, the Edgewater eatery served the dish until September 17 and again in early May. Moreno’s recipe does not feature capeado, but he can add it on request.
3018 N. Cicero Avenue, Belmont-Cragin
Chef Carlos Tello included chiles en nogada as part of the regional fare he curates for the ever-changing menu of his Belmont-Cragin restaurant. Tello serves the dish through September to celebrate the Mexican festivities and briefly brings it back in February as a nod to love (a reference to Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate). For Tello, who incidentally is married to the sister of Chicago’s mole king (veteran chef Geno Bahena, most recently of Mis Moles) — food is a way to connect with culture. Among his patrons, he says, he sees anything from the traveler who has discovered chiles en nogada during a trip to Mexico to the grandfather that cannot travel home and the new generations of Mexican Americans who are partaking in their parents’ and grandparents’ traditions. “Chiles en nogada are past, present, and future all at once,” he says.
3023 N. Broadway, Lakeview
Chef Natalie Oswald says her “regular customers are already counting down the days, and first-timers say it tastes like Christmas.” For Oswald, two elements stand out in a successful execution of chiles en nogada: a poblano pepper that is thoroughly cooked but still firm, and a warm sauce that is not burnt or curdled.
Chilam Balam will have chiles en nogada on the menu starting September through mid-October.
2447 N. Milwaukee Avenue, Logan Square
La Victoria’s chiles en nogada stays true to tradition while incorporating local ingredients and flavors, says managing partner Carlos Alferez (Frontera Grill, Topolobampo). In celebration of Mexican Independence Week, chef Ryan Wombacher takes inspiration from his Midwestern roots to present a unique take on the dish. Guests at this recently opened eatery will find roasted poblano peppers generously filled with Midwest-sourced brisket braised, along with Logan Square farmer’s market apples, pears, and apricots topped with just-in-season chestnut nogada sauce and pomegranate seeds.
3437 W, North Avenue, Humboldt Park
It’s Fiestas Patrias year-round at La Encantada in Humboldt Park, where Irma Enriquez has been proudly serving chiles en nogada for 16 years. Her recipe features a filling made with beef, apples, pears, and peaches. The dish is served with your choice of rice, beans, or any other available side. Note La Encantada’s new hours. They are open Thursday to Sunday from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. and they only accept cash or Zelle.
Frontera, Topolobampo, and Bar Sótano
445 N. Clark Street, River North
Frontera Grill will serve chiles en nogada from Thursday, September 15 through Saturday, September 17. The dish features a poblano pepper stuffed with a pork filling made with roasted tomato, fall fruits, and almonds. It comes with a walnut sauce made with goat cheese, cream, and sherry. The dish is finished with pomegranate seeds and parsley.
Frontera Grill’s iconic sister, Topolobampo, will feature its Art Menu during Fiestas Patrias. However, the eatery has a delightful surprise for its patrons: a complimentary course of Chiles en Nogada will be served mid-menu on Thursday, September 15, and Friday, September 15.
7403 Madison Street, Forest Park
Famous for his mole, another jewel in the crown of Mexican Baroque cuisine, chef Francisco Lopez, also known as “Chef Paco,” has featured the dish since he opened his suburban restaurant 30 years ago: “Back when not many people knew about it,” he says. In his cuisine, Chef Paco finds his guiding philosophy: “Savory, sweet, spicy, soft, crunchy, a chile en nogada is like life. A good one has balance.”
The dish is available now from the second week of September through the end of December.
1758 W. 18th Street, Pilsen
Chef Alfonso Sotelo proudly offers chiles en nogada at his Pilsen restaurant to celebrate Mexican Independence Day.
Sotelo’s recipe incorporates pork and beef, which he mixes with a selection of fruits, including plantains, pears, and peaches. The poblano pepper is simultaneously a flavor, a texture, and a vehicle. “It has to be just right,” he adds. This year, he plans to prepare the dish with the egg batter layer known as capeado.
The plate is available at 5 Rabanitos starting this weekend and will remain on the menu for the entire month of September.
2834 W. Cermak Road, Little Village
Chiles en nogada fans rejoice, as this dish is on the menu year-round at La Casa de Samuel in Little Village. But this is no easy feat: The elaborate preparation and need for certain ingredients demand commitment and discipline. “We are always, always on the lookout for pomegranate,” says chef Arturo Linares. Already an established destination for traditional Mexican plates, here chiles en nogada holds its own due to its emblematic nature, emotional charge, and flavors. According to Linares, “We are fully invested in the plate’s preparation process, and we are proud and excited every time we serve it.”
Try it with their hand-made tortillas.
1735 Benson Avenue, Evanston
Patrons of Fonda Cantina can look forward to chef Carlos Cahue’s rendition of chiles en nogada. He’s committed to preserving the authentic flavors and techniques of this classic dish. His recipe entails poblano peppers expertly filled with a mixture of ground beef, fruits, nuts, and spices. The nogada sauce incorporates goat cheese and almonds. The dish is garnished with pomegranate seeds.
For those eager to indulge, mark your calendars as the eatery will be featuring this dish on Wednesday, September 20 as part of a four-course menu. Call ahead to reserve your spot.
Fat Rosie’s Taco and Tequila Bar
4504 W. Touhy Avenue, Lincolnwood, and 870 N. Meacham Road, Schaumburg
At first glance, Fat Rosie’s might come across as a place that caters to those seeking little more than a boozy margarita at a place that reminds them of their last vacation at a tourist hot spot. However, with the guidance of the restaurant’s culinary director — revered chef Dudley Nieto — the suburbs are in for much more than meets the eye.
With Nieto hailing from Puebla, the birthplace of chiles en nogada and the epicenter of Mexico’s Culinary Baroque, it is only fitting for the dish to make an appearance at Fat Rosie’s in celebration of Mexican Independence Day. Nieto’s rendition of the plate sticks to a traditional recipe. His interpretation highlights the local and seasonal ingredients that the original recipe calls for — including pears, apples, peaches, tomatoes, and a blend of spices mixed with pork to fill the poblano peppers. The dish features capeado and is crowned with a luscious nogada sauce, enriched with sherry, and adorned with pomegranate seeds.
You can savor this dish exclusively at two Fat Rosie’s locations: Lincolnwood and Schaumburg, on Saturday, September 16.