Cafe Society

Chili Verde serves nearly perfect Pueblan food

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So good. Possibly the best in town, certainly the simplest, definitely authentic. I ate mine with a fork, leaving the Saltines in their individual wrappers. I ate it with the chips brought free to my table, digging up mounds of ceviche and shoveling them in, impressed at how no one bite differed from the next — not too heavy on the onion here, heavy on the chile there, but all equal because of the careful knifework done in the back, the deconstruction of every element down to infinitesimal size.

The chips — sweet and homemade, actually tasting of corn — were good on their own, and they came with three interesting sauces (sauces, not salsas, and in one case, not really even a sauce). Two of them — a thin green-chile sauce like the ones I remember from New Mexico and a vicious little bowl of pasty red chile and oil — were murderously, punishingly hot. The third was a bowl of chunky refritos topped with a sprinkle of melted cotija. It was all so good that before I'd finished either the ceviche or the chips, I had the menu open again on my lap, planning a week's worth of fantasy eating at Chili Verde, a broad sampling of a rather short board specializing in dishes "from Puebla," as Eder would later tell me, or "family recipe," or just "from my mother."

Monday: more ceviche; maybe an apple salad with pineapple, walnuts and raisins, and the caldo Tlalpeño — Mexican chicken soup with potatoes and smoky chipotle. Tuesday: more ceviche, then Ensenada fish tacos with black beans. Wednesday: more ceviche (shrimp this time, for a change), followed by shrimp in butter with Mexican spices, rice and beans, or maybe the enchilada de mole with queso fresco and a sprinkling of sesame seeds (another family recipe, another specialty of the house) or the chilaquiles with epazote, the eggs served over more of the kitchen's homemade, deep-fried corn tortilla chips. On weekends, the kitchen does shrimp soup with potatoes and epazote, as well as a real posole, shot through with poblano chiles and bulked up with hominy, topped with radish — a mark of authenticity so often forgotten once the border is crossed. In the United States, radishes are garnishes. But in Mexico, they're actual food.

I wanted the posole right then, except it was a Thursday. So instead, I ordered the poblano crepes, for a little French-Mexican fusion that isn't really fusion at all. There are creperies in Mexico City and Cancún, in San Miguel de Allende and in the Yucatán. Family recipes for crepes date back to the nineteenth century, to the last time the French fought wars in Mexico. And really, what is a crepe but a taco shell made of eggs? My order at Chili Verde brought a plate divided in half by a mound of shredded iceberg lettuce and chopped tomatoes, with oddly smoky and sweet rice studded with corn kernels on one side and two lovely folded crepes on the other, stuffed with a little chicken and rajas of roasted poblano, then topped with a poblano cream sauce unlike anything I'd ever tasted before.

"From Puebla," Eder said. Of course.

The sauce was creamy and sharp at the same time, deep with the smoky flavor of the roasted chiles and sweetened by the corn kernels scattered on top. The crepes were unmistakably French — lacy and delicate and light — and the filling so restrained it didn't get in the way of either the powerful smoky savor of the poblanos or the delicate sweetness of the crepes. The dish tasted lovely even if it looked ugly, all dull greens and browns, its artlessness a stark contrast to the spare, clean-lined dining room, decked out with white tablecloths and linen napkins and lots of blonde wood that exemplify the brothers' desire to have Chili Verde be more than another neighborhood taquería, more than just a place to pick up a burrito and some beer. But the crepes were so good, so different, so oddly, historically authentic in their cross-cultural mash-up that they could have been served in a bucket and I wouldn't have cared. If they'd been dropped straight onto the table, I would have licked that cloth clean.

On the weekend, I went back for the posole. I wanted a cold beer to go with it, but since Chili Verde was having some troubles getting its liquor license, the bar was bare. "What do you like, beer? Margarita? Tomorrow, maybe. Or the next day," one of the brothers promised. So I had a Pepsi, and the chili verde plate — the restaurant's namesake offering. "Hot," he'd warned me. "Do you like hot?"

I like hot. I love hot. And the creamy, pork-spiked green chile qualified. So, too, did the shrimp chipotle: eight tail-on crustaceans swimming in a deep tarn of brick-red chipotle sauce with a dusty, savory heat and a burn that lingered for long minutes. With the chile verde plate, I chased the bits of roasted pork around the green napalm sauce until I was sure I'd gotten every last one. With the shrimp, I gave up after eating only half of them. Of all the dishes I tried at Chili Verde, this was my least favorite — but only because it seemed so one-note, so basic, so undeveloped, as if the simple application of time might give it more depth.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan