When I first tasted pozole in Mexico, I’d never heard of it. My husband had read about a place in San Miguel de Allende that was famous for their pozole verde, and as he tried to explain it to me — “It’s a Mexican soup made with pork, chiles, and hominy” — my mind kept sticking on “grits.” Being a good Southern girl, the only time I’ve ever used the word hominy is in the phrase, “Are these hominy grits?” (Referring, of course, to the Native-American corn-based porridge that usually comes as part of a blue-plate special south of the Mason-Dixon line.) I had no idea what hominy really is (corn that has been soaked, cooked in limewater, and hulled) or what it looks like intact (big, luscious white chunks of corny goodness).
Being a huge fan of grits, it came as no surprise to me that when I finally sat down in front of a bowl of pozole, I pigged out — as if it and I had known each other our whole lives and were not meeting for the first time, but rather old friends catching up. It was green (rather than red). It was chicken (rather than pork). It came with raw fixin’s galore: chicharones, tostadas, lemon and lime, avocado, onion, chili pepper, oregano, radishes, cabbage, and cilantro. All of which we heaped on top to taste. It was awesome. We were immediately intrigued and wanted to know more.
Rick Bayless has been eating the stuff practically his whole life. The chef, author, and television star first went to Mexico as a child. As a young man, he spent almost a decade there, studying the country’s culinary mysteries and eventually wrote (with his wife, Deann) what is now one of the definitive volumes on Mexican cuisine, Authentic Mexican: Regional Cooking from the Heart of Mexico.
“Pozole has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember,” Rick told me recently in a phone interview. “It’s a staple dish throughout the country, though traditionally central Mexico is home of the red (rojo). Within Guadalajara you can find the white (blanco), and in Guerrero, the green (verde), but only on a certain day of the week.” The three together make up the colors of the Mexican soul (and flag), and the versions vary only slightly. Pozole verde is what I first tried in Mexico — made with pumpkin seeds and chicken as well as pork. The color comes from tomatillos that have been roasted and pureed. Pozole rojo is pork-based and uses red chilies to expand its flavor. Blanco is made just like the rojo, but passes on the chilies and often the oregano.
Though some Mexican-American communities now think of pozole as a Christmas dish, in Mexico any fiesta will do. “Like tamales … everyone in the states thinks pozole means Christmas, but in Mexico, it is eaten all the time,” says Bayless. “Pozole is really a party food, good for any time of year, much like mole or barbacoa. It is not very labor-intensive, but it takes a lot of time. Families usually start the day before and eat it the next, with someone staying up throughout the night to tend the fire.”
What makes pozole unique is the use of the hominy as well as in some cases a Mexican herb called epazote. Epazote is a strange flowering herb with a pungent fragrance that you have to smell to understand, but is sometimes compared to tar. And before that, you have to actually find it. It’s often substituted with parsley or Mexican oregano, and the only place I could find it was Central Market… and even then they only have it a few days of the week and it sells out in a couple of hours. (Ed. note: Try the Michoacana groceries, and the Southside H-E-Bs.) The first time we made pozole verde at home, we didn’t have it at all; the second time I was able to find a dried version tucked away with the tea leaves. Making it at home is fun, but like anything made from scratch, it’s easy to see why most folks reserve it for the holidays. You really have to look elsewhere to work it into the weekly rotation.
Having never heard of pozole previously, my husband and I assumed it was some rare Mexican treat, but once back in San Antonio, we began to notice it everywhere. Advertised on handwritten signs out in front of neighborhood taquerias. On the menus of some of our favorite restaurants. It was like this little hidden secret squirreled away right in front of our eyes. Let me just say, I am certainly no expert, but I took a week to do a sampling of some spots around town that serve the stuff. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it’s a nice starting point if you’d like to start a search all your own.
Though I am loathe to admit it, I’d never actually set foot in Beto’s (8142 Broadway) until the pozole brought me. I slipped in after the lunchtime rush and ordered a small cup for $3.79. (Weird pricing, huh?) The rojo variety, it was served with the traditional garnish of cabbage, cilantro, radish, and lime, and had a broth that was rich and earthy with large, dark pork chunks — very flavorful, but not necessarily spicy. The thinly sliced cabbage and tang of the lime made it for me, and next time I go there, I’ll be sure to ask for a little hot sauce on the side. But then again, I’m a spice whore, so what do I know.
Right down the road is my absolute favorite taco joint, Taqueria Vallarta (8234 Broadway). After five years of living off their al pastor, it was only a few weeks ago that I noticed the dry-erase board announcing pozole on the weekends. This little Jalisco-style restaurant makes everything so tasty, my expectations going in were high. Regardless of the bias, the bowl was pretty good. Definitely the working-man’s take, this version of the dish is why people often refer to pozole as menudo without the tripe. A huge bowl was priced at $5.50 and came with tostadas, cabbage, lemon, and
onion. The broth was more white than red, but it was packed with a ton of hominy and several large and fatty chunks of ham hocks. At first glance, the meat seemed crude, but it ended up making for a very flavorful lunch. Great spicing, though if there was any epazote in it, I couldn’t taste it.
The bowl I had at the family-friendly Janitzio (4404 Walzem Rd.) was very similar in execution. The restaurant was opened in the early ’80s by the former partner of the tragically late Viola Barrios, and even though Francisco Rodriguez has since passed away, you can see much of the menu here that helped make Los Barrios famous. It’s heavy on the Tex-Mex, with some authentic specialties sprinkled in, and the pozole, in particular, is only sold on Sunday. The pork here came in small and plentiful brown chunks, and the cut was lean and juicy. The only real difference between the two was that Taqueria Vallarta had a spicier flavor, but in both cases (I might be wrong about this) the epazote seemed absent. Side note: The service is amazing, like being at grandma’s house. Two thumbs up for making patrons feel like a million bucks when they are probably only spending about $20.
In the more upscale realm, I decided to visit Ácenar (146 E. Houston St.), as it was the only restaurant I could find that had pozole verde on the menu. Though the taste was flavorful and the chicken moist, the broth was a bit too salty for my taste (which can easily happen, as the hominy really sucks it up and over-salting is common). It was also topped with shredded lettuce, which unlike the traditional cabbage went soggy almost immediately. It came with sides of radish, onion, cilantro, red-pepper flakes, and oregano, but was served with flour tortillas rather than corn. At only $5.75 for a large bowl, I’m glad I checked it out, but the recipe still needs some tweaking before I’d commit to a second round.
Back uptown, Paloma Blanca (5800 Broadway) serves the rojo variety at $5.75 for a small bowl. Though it wasn’t a knock-out, served with cabbage, onion, lime, and radish, it was stripped- down and yummy, with large pieces of tender shredded pork and warm corn tortillas on the side. If I’m ever there again, I’d definitely revisit.
An institution in San Antonio, Rosario’s (910 S. Alamo) is famous for its fun Tex-Mex food: quesadilla, nachos, enchiladas, margaritas, etc. I personally don’t like going there at lunch because it’s crowded, loud, and the service is usually on Valium. So going back for a first-time taste of their pozole, my expectations weren’t super-high, and that was a smart thing. Served with a side order of scallions, chili, radish, and oregano, a first glance revealed a large bowl ($6.49) of bright-red broth slicked with a thin coat of grease and topped with cabbage, cilantro, and dried chili peppers. Digging deeper, the large chunks of pork were especially fatty (hence the grease) and the broth proved to be watery without much spice. For a dish that is humble at its core, I felt like it was overdone in both taste and presentation. There are lots of items on Rosario’s menu that are flavorful and inventive, but going there in search of a nuanced Mexican sopa was probably a bad idea. To find great pozole, who knew that all I had to do was walk down the street?
In stark contrast, Cascabel’s Mexican Patio (1000 S. St. Mary’s) is often a ghost town at lunchtime. It received a glowing review in this paper four years ago, but sadly, it’s been all but forgotten. With a menu that features true interior Mexican cuisine, as soon as I saw that sopas are a main course rather than an afterthought, I knew the writing was on the wall. (Literally, the writing is all over the walls, graffiti-style, in both Spanish and English.) The quadruple punch of Caldo Tlalpeno (chicken soup with chick peas), Birria (goat soup), Mole De Olla, and pozole was enough to get me jacked and squirming in my seat. Including all the usual sides — plus a stack of made-to-order corn tortillas — the bowl ($6.50) came with an appetizer of fideo and two impeccable salsas in both red and green. The broth was rich and filling, heaped with shredded pork, and you could really taste the epazote, giving it that sinfully dirty flavor that is the polar opposite of a cilantro kick. The salsa sat largely untouched as the spicing was perfect … just enough to bring a few tears to the eye. Sooooo good. Cascabel is such a sweet little restaurant, sporting tables decked out with Fiestaware, serapes, cloth mats, and napkins (with rings!) — the devil is in the details here. By the end of my meal, I was scraping the bottom of the bowl with my finger. This place is the real thing my friends. If I find myself craving pozole and am too lazy to toil over a batch, Cascabel it shall be. •
Green Chicken Pozole
9 c water
2 bay leaves
1 large white onion, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced
3 garlic cloves, chopped
1/2 t salt
2 skinless, boneless chicken thighs
2 skinless, boneless chicken breasts
1 t pepitas (ground pumpkin seed)
2-3 c tomatillo salsa (make your own or use bottled)
1/2 c chopped fresh cilantro
1 t dried epazote or oregano (preferably Mexican), crumbled
1 T olive oil
2 (15-oz) cans white hominy, rinsed and drained
Accompaniments: diced radish, lime wedges, shredded cabbage, and chopped white onion, to be added “al gusto,” or as preferred.
Simmer 8 cups of the water, the bay leaf, the onion, garlic, and salt for about 10 minutes. Add the chicken and poach at a bare simmer, skimming off any foam, until just cooked through, about 20 minutes. Transfer the chicken to a cutting board to cool and pour the broth through a fine-mesh sieve into a large bowl. Reserve. When chicken is cool enough to handle, coarsely shred with your fingers.
Heat oil in a 4- to 5-quart heavy pot over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking, then add the tomatillo salsa, pepitas, and epazote. Cook, uncovered, stirring frequently, until thickened, about 10 minutes. Stir in 1 cup of the reserved chicken broth and simmer 5 minutes. Add the shredded chicken, hominy, and the rest of the reserved broth and simmer, partially covered, 20 minutes.
Stir in the cilantro and serve pozole in deep bowls with accompaniments.
Reprinted from redactedrecipes.com