Chiles en no­gada a treat at Cuchara

Eatery marks its fifth an­niver­sary and Mex­i­can In­de­pen­dence Day with a ben­e­fit for Watt’s Har­vey re­lief fund

Houston Chronicle - - DAILY DIGITAL - By Ali­son Cook Ali­ twit­­ison­cook

At Cuchara, the Mex­ico City-style bistro in Montrose that cel­e­brates its fifth birth­day this month, my eyes bugged out when my chiles en no­gada ar­rived.

The stuffed chile was huge. Where, I won­dered, had they man­aged to find poblano chiles that big? Co-owner Ana Beaven told me they have to weed through lots of poblanos to find the blimp-sized spec­i­mens. These mon­sters loom upon the plate in a man­ner that says: “I’m spe­cial. You are for­tu­nate in­deed to get me.”

In­deed. Septem­ber is the month for chiles en no­gada at Cuchara. So there is dou­ble rea­son to pay a visit to this de­light­ful restau­rant, with its cheeky graphic-art mu­rals and its sa­lon-style hos­pi­tal­ity — the sig­na­ture of Mex­ico City na­tive Beaven and her part­ner, Char­lie McDaniel.

Chiles en no­gada is one of those weird and won­der­ful dishes that sum­mons up an­other age, or per­haps an­other so­lar sys­tem. I al­ways think of this meat-and-fruit­stuffed poblano pep­per, swathed in creamy wal­nut sauce and span­gled with crim­son pome­gran­ate seeds, as the kind of thing that might be served at an im­pe­rial ban­quet on a dis­tant planet.

So rich and col­or­ful and strange is this stuffed chile, there is some­thing me­dieval about it, too. The way the sweet el­e­ments of cit­ron, raisins and peach con­trast with the sa­vory chopped pork and nuts of the filling, un­der­laid by a heady tinge of cognac, all con­spire to re­mind me of mince­meat pie — an­other fes­tal dish, spurred into be­ing by the Cru­sades, that’s a holdover from cen­turies past.

The ori­gin myth of chiles en no­gada holds that it was in­vented in 1821 by Pue­blan nuns to honor a visit by a Mex­i­can gen­eral. Hence its elab­o­rate na­ture, and its hues of the then-new Mex­i­can flag: green chile; white wal­nut cream; red pome­gran­ate seeds. To­day it is an in­tensely sea­sonal treat in Mex­ico, served mostly in the weeks around Mex­i­can In­de­pen­dence day (Sept. 16), when wal­nuts and pomegranates come into sea­son.

Cuchara’s cooks don’t fry the roasted-and­seeded green chiles in puffy egg bat­ter like the orig­i­nals. (To bat­ter or not to bat­ter is a source of de­bate in mod­ern Mex­ico.) And their wal­nut sauce has a warm brown tint rather than an ivory pal­lor. A whole dance en­sues among sa­vory pork and sweet fruit and earthy nuts, the tart crunch of pome­gran­ate seeds bounc­ing off the soft­ness of the cream sauce and the dark, veg­e­tal tones of the chile.

Nor­mally I shun sweet meat dishes. Not this one. And the other evening, sit­ting at the lively Cuchara bar, I learned a whole new way of ap­pre­ci­at­ing chiles en no­gada.

Luis Alonso, the vo­cal­ist of Amer­i­can stan­dards and Latin bal­lads who sings at the restau­rant every sec­ond Tues­day, hap­pened to be sit­ting a few seats down. When my chiles en no­gada ar­rived in all its glory, he leaned over to tell me that Cham­pagne was a tra­di­tional ac­com­pa­ni­ment to the dish in Mex­ico City. “Try it,” he urged.

So I or­dered a glass of Prosecco, the only sparkler on Cuchara’s short wine list, and found he was right: its dry, fruity spritz cut cleanly against the rich com­plex­ity of the chile dish.

The $32 din­ner­time price tag for the chile re­flected its painstak­ing prepa­ra­tion. (Dur­ing Cuchara’s pop­u­lar lunch hour co­mida cor­rida, the chile can be had for a $10 sur­charge over the reg­u­lar $15 three-course prix fixe.)

I even re­turned home with some­thing by which to re­mem­ber my chile: a frame-wor­thy lit­tle print by Ce­cilia Beaven, the restau­rant’s res­i­dent mu­ral­ist and Ana Beaven’s sis­ter. Above a full-color de­pic­tion of the dish it­self rode a leg­end: “This is our chile en no­gada no. 80 of 2017. En­joy!”

You can get your own chiles en no­gada at Cuchara through­out the month of Septem­ber. If you go for din­ner Fri­day, know that the restau­rant will be cel­e­brat­ing both its fifth birth­day and Mex­i­can In­de­pen­dence Day at a big party fea­tur­ing live mu­sic, Aztec dancers, mari­achis, a DJ and danc­ing un­til mid­night. Of the $10 cover charge, $5 will go to J.J. Watt’s Har­vey re­lief fund.

Ali­son Cook / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

Chiles en no­gada numero 80 from the 2017 sea­son at Cuchara restau­rant.

Char­lie McDaniel and Ana Beaven co-own Cuchara in Montrose.

Ji­cama mar­garita, a spe­cial at Cuchara.

Salpi­con in the style of Mi­choa­can, which is new on the menu at Cuchara.

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