100 Favorite Dishes

100 Favorite Dishes 2014-15: No. 82, Chiles en Nogada Tradicionales at Pico's Mex-Mex

Once again, Kaitlin Steinberg is eating her way through Houston and counting down her 100 favorite dishes as we work our way toward our annual Menu of Menus® issue and culinary extravaganza. She'll compile a collection of the dishes she thinks are the most delicious, most creative and, of course, most indicative of our ever-changing food scene. It's a list of personal favorites, things she thinks any visitor or Houstonian ought to try at least once and dishes that are uniquely Houstonian.

If there's one dish that best exemplifies Mexican pride, it's probably chiles en nogada. The dish was invented in Puebla to celebrate Mexico's independence day on September 16, and since then it's become a popular dish in the United States as well, in part because it's so unique.

It contains three primary elements representative of the colors of the Mexican flag: Green poblano peppers, red pomegranate seeds and a white walnut sauce. The peppers are traditionally stuffed with picadillo, a mixture of shredded pork with spices and fruit, and the walnut sauce is thickened with heavy cream and queso anejo. It's alternately soothing and decadent and brimming with historical significance.

At Pico's Mex-Mex, the interior Mexican restaurant that recently moved from Bellaire just outside the Loop to Upper Kirby, chef Arnaldo Richards does chiles en nogada tradicionales the right way--with a little spice and a lot of soul.

As the name suggests, the dish is prepared in a very traditional manner. The roasted poblano peppers are cleaned and stuffed with shredded pork shoulder mixed with green olives and mild spices--just enough to give the picadillo a little heat without overwhelming any other flavors.

The rich sauce is made from a mixture of ground walnuts, cream, cheese, sugar and a bit of sherry or vermouth, depending upon the preference of the chef. As the sauce simmers, a bit of the alcohol is cooked off, but the flavor remains, enhancing the mild sweetness of the walnuts.

Then the dish is assembled: Two stuffed peppers, a generous drizzle of sauce and a sprinkling of ruby pomegranate seeds that add a tart crunch when you bite into them. The velvety smooth sauce at first seems incongruous with the savory pork and peppers, but as you combine the elements on your fork, you'll note hints of sweetness in the pork (from apples and pears simmered with the meat) and a hearty, savory aspect in the sauce from the meaty walnuts. From preparation to flavor profile, it's a complicated dish.

But the flavor nuances and complexity are only fitting; Getting independence from Spain wasn't easy either.

The list so far: No. 83, Porkobuco at Brooklyn Athletic Club No. 84, Chai Pie at Pondicheri No. 85, Tacos at Taqueria Maya Quiché No. 86, S'mores at 13 Celsius No. 87, Calamari at Lillo & Ella No. 88, Pulled Pork Nachos at Way Good Food Truck No. 89, Garden Sammie at Local Foods No. 90, Barbecued Salmon Salad at Brooks Family BBQ No. 91, Smoked Salmon Waffle at The Waffle Bus No. 92, Chirashi Lunch at Sushi Miyagi No. 93, Finocchiona Sandwich at Siphon Coffee No. 94, Combo Catracho at Mi Bella Honduras Restaurant No. 95, Tamal de Puerco at Andes Cafe No. 96, Cheeseburger at Sparkle's Hamburger Spot No. 97, Mi Quang at Simply Pho No. 98, Helado de Lúcuma at Pollo Bravo No. 99, Fat Fries at Fat Bao No. 100, Fish Bánh Mì at La Baguette

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Kaitlin Steinberg