The season for Chiles en Nogada had just begun and I had never really had them before – at least not in season and at the source. Battered and fried poblano chiles stuffed with a mixture of sweet and savory, fruits and meats and smothered in a bechamel with walnuts and sprinkled with pomegranate seeds, the dish is a colorful ode to Mexican independence. It is highly seasonal, depending on the availability of a variety of fruit, walnuts, chiles and pomegranates, which normally run in Puebla from July into October. I had to have one and I chose it for my main course at El Mural de Los Poblanos, the evocative, tradition-rich restaurant located in the heart of central Puebla just off the zocalo or main square.
Puebla is a city that likes its sweets, even in some of its most well known savory dishes. The Chile en Nogada was a bit sweet, though the savory components kept the sugar largely in check. Mole Poblano, the ingredient rich bit of alchemy that is a sauce also leans a touch to the sweet side. With a good mole, the meat is the accent, while the mole is the main focus of the dish.. Here too, the sweet undercurrent is balanced by the incredible savory depth of all the wonderful spices, and yes, a bit of chocolate.
Though still young, El Mural’s chef, Liz Galicia, has developed a reputation in Puebla and throughout Mexico as a culinary sleuth, always searching for traditional recipes. Her menu is a repository of Pueblan classics like the Chiles en Nogada and Mole Poblano, but it is no museum. Her dishes ooze with flavor and balance. It was good enough and intriguing enough that I ate there two nights in a row.
Galicia doesn’t just make Mole Poblano. She offers six different “moles” of the area on her menu, though technically two are Pipians, like a mole in complexity, but made with different ingredients, the pipians based mostly on seeds, while the moles’ main ingredients are chiles. Each one, though, including the relatively simple tomato based sauce had incredible depth and richness of flavor.
My first meal started with a series of antojitos, bites of street food in a more elegant setting. We tried three mini-semitas – a classic Milanesa and a couple of variations on that. I had been craving a Milanesa and couldn’t wait to try one again. This reminded me why.
Chalupasare from Puebla and Galicia sent out a variety of these to try. Oval discs of fried corn tortilla were painted with either green or red salsas and sprinkled with fried onions and Oaxacan style cheese that had been shredded.
The most challenging bites for me, though were my first experience with gusanos, moth larvae commonly referred to as worms. These larvae come from maguey or agave plants and are often bottled along with Mezcal, the liquor made from the maguey. The gusanos were used as the central component of tacos that we constructed at the table.
Fresh, warm corn tortillas were spread with a dollop of delicious guacamole, then layered with the worms and topped with a bit of salsa.
I rolled mine up and took a bite. The gusanos were slightly crunchy, but the flavor was actually quite tasty. Not only wasn’t it bad, it was pretty good. I went back for another.
Fideus secos clearly owe a great debt to Spain and the classic Fideus of Valencia and Catalunya. Vermicelli noodles cooked until dry had a wonderful crispness and great tomato based flavor. This was pure deliciousness, especially when combined with the bed of avocado bliss underneath the wheel of pasta and the crunchy bits of porcine chicharrones mixed within.
Another mole that I tried on my second visit was a manchamanteles aka “tablecloth stainer” with duck. This mole was heavy with fruit and even a bit sweeter than the mole poblano, but it too was exceedingly well balanced with a touch of spicy heat and the perfect choice to accompany the richness of duck.
While Chef Galicia has become known as a curator of Pueblan culinary traditions, she can also create her own dishes. The meal started out with an amuse of green gazpacho made with chile poblanos, cucumbers and olive oil. It was smooth and refreshing with just a touch of spice.
For the most part, I stuck with drinking beer through much of my visit to Mexico. Like its neighbor to the north and many other places in the world, Mexico has developed a wonderful culture of artisanal beers. El Mural had a nice collection.
I tried a few of them. I particularly enjoyed this Tempus Dorado, a rich, full flavored golden ale from Primus Cerveceria. It had some nice citrus notes that belnded well with the dishes that I had.
Amongst Mexican spirits, Tequila gets the lion’s share of attention. While I enjoy a good tequila, I have really grown to love a good Mezcal. I asked Chef Galicia to choose one for me to try and she chose this local Pechuga from Xoyatla, made from 100% agave along with breast of chicken! The result was smooth, smoky and utterly delicious.
Of course, the Mezcal was served with orange slices and salt with ground up gusanos.
Puebla has a reputation for sweets. A whole street in Central Puebla is lined with shops selling homemade dulces including sweet potato based camotes and other delights. It was no surprise, then, that Galicia’s desserts were as wonderful as they were. I had a little trepidation that they were going to be exceedingly sweet, but they weren’t. They were plenty sweet enough, but with great depth of flavor and balance. I hate desserts that are all sugar and no substance. These desserts had plenty of substance to go with their sugary backbones.
The rich and creamy rice pudding would have been just fine without additional adornment, but a bit of jamaica, tea from hibiscus flowers, made it extra-special with a citrusy zing.
Cremitawas as it sounds. It was a lush, creamy custard flavored with cinnamon and vanilla. while it was relatively straight forward, it was no less delicious for that.
The turrón or nougat ice cream was sensational. It was thick and gooey, but filled with nuanced, nutty flavor. The caramel component was just right. If any dessert was likely to be too sweet, it was going to be this one, but Galicia kept that in check.
It might seem that El Mural de Los Poblanos was designed to be a tourist restaurant and it is in fact perfect for tourists looking for great traditional poblano food in a warm and evocative setting, but it is not especially or specifcally a tourist’s restaurant. That is to say that it is a restaurant by Poblanos for Poblanos – a celebration of their cuisine and culture. Tourists are certainly welcome, but I was the only obvious tourist present on both nights that I was there. Puebla is the kind of city that revels in its own traditions, and why not? Deceptively populous, Puebla’s culinary traditions build upon its pre-Columbian roots with contributions from the Spanish and the French as well as later immigrants from Lebanon and elsewhere. El Mural de Los Poblanos is a perfect place to get a feel for all of them.