Monday, April 22, 2024

Behind the tradition of the chile en nogada at Lola’s in Long Beach


Chile en nogada is more than just another a Mexican dish, where a deep green poblano chile is stuffed before being drizzled with a walnut cream sauce and topped with pomegranate seeds.

It is intimately intertwined with Mexican history and independence, patriotism and Mexican hospitality, where the green, white, and red of the dishes main stars reflect the colors of the Mexican flag—and come the month of September, chile en nogada season opens its annual doors throughout Mexico proper and the places where descendants of Mexicans have called home outside the motherland.

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The chile en nogada at Lola’s Mexican Cuisine, an annual tradition at the Long Beach restaurant. Photo by Brian Addison.

For Lola’s co-owner Luis Navarro, serving up a variety of dishes that go beyond the stereotypical view Americans often have of Mexican food has long been in his repertoire: From serving the Oaxacan mole that Chef Thomas Keller himself has shipped to the State to honing dishes outside his Jalisciense heritage, like cochinita pibil, for his restaurant’s 15th anniversary, Navarro continually tries to show Long Beach the breadth of Mexican food—and the tradition of offering up chile en nogada has been one that is over a decade old following a trip with Chef Rick Bayless through Veracruz to Puebla.

“As someone who grew up with my mom’s food”—Navarro’s mother, Lola and the founder of the restaurant, was born in Guadalajara and her food was overwhelmingly Jalisco-centric—”you kind of find yourself in this tunnel of what Mexican food is. But you have to really travel Mexico to see how far-reaching the cuisine really is: The areas of Quintana Roo and Yucatán are completely different than Jalisco and Nayarit. So traveling into Puebla and seeing this beautiful dish over a decade ago has just stuck with me. And we’ve now made it an annual tradition to serve it here at Lola’s.”

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Don’t forget the cocktails. Photo by Brian Addison.

The version Navarro serves could be called a textbook chile en nogada: A roasted’n’peeled poblano chile is then stuffed with a seasoned ground beef mixture that includes walnuts and golden raisins before being slathered in a creamy, walnut-meets-nutmeg cream sauce and topped with pomegranate seeds. Creamy, savory, slightly sweet, it is a history of Mexico that few on the States’ side know.

Mid-pandemic, in 2021, the dish celebrated its 200th birthday—and there are two different stories that compete for attachment to the dish’s adored legacy.

Shortly after signing the 1821 treaty that formally established Mexico’s independence from Spain in August of that very year, Trigarante Army leader and commander Agustín de Iturbide was going to stop in Puebla on his trip from the port of Veracruz—where he had been strategically stationed during the war—to the nation’s capital, Mexico City. Legend has it that the nuns of the Convent of Santa Mónica wanted to impress the man who would soon become the country’s first emperor—and already known for their culinary skills, they opted for a chile dish that reflected the three colors of the Mexican flag.

Of course, no historical story—let alone one with such patriotic vigor attached to it—would not be attacked for accuracy.

The other popular story vying for so-called “true origin” of the dish comes from Mexican writer Artemio de Valle-Arizpe’s “Sala de Tapices,” who argues that three women attempting to honor returning soldiers, who had overwhelmed them with beautiful gifts, had invented the dish; he even goes as far as to say that the house where the women lived deserved a plaque noting and honoring this achievement.

Whether myth or accurate history, one thing remains indelibly true: Chile en nogada is a Mexican gastronomical gift whose uniqueness and beauty is something we should cherish each time we have the privilege to experience it.

Lola’s Mexican Cuisine will be serving chile en nogada at both of their locations throughout September: 2030 E. 4th Street on Retro Row and 4140 Atlantic Ave. in Bixby Knolls.

Brian Addison
Brian Addison
Brian Addison has been a writer, editor, and photographer for more than a decade, covering everything from food and culture to transportation and housing. In 2015, he was named Journalist of the Year by the Los Angeles Press Club and has since garnered 25 nominations and three additional wins. In 2019, he was awarded the Food/Culture Critic of the Year across any platform at the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards.


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