I thought I had pozole figured out.
Along with sampling the dish in Mexico and making it from scratch at home, I’ve devoured many of Chicago’s best options, including bowls from Pozoleria San Juan (1523 N. Pulaski Road), Pozoleria Iguala (3835 W. Fullerton Ave.), and 5 Rabanitos (1758 W. 18th St.).
Every version I’ve tried starts with a thick and meaty broth packed with large, creamy kernels of hominy and tender shredded meat (usually pork). Most places allow you to order one of three variations — rojo, verde or blanco.
Dried chiles stain the rojo dark red, while the verde gets its color most often from tomatillos and fresh green chiles. Blanco, on the other hand, omits any additions. To enliven this deeply comforting base, you’ll often get a plateful of fresh and crunchy toppings, like shredded cabbage, diced onion, sliced radish and crisp chicharron, among many others.
But as soon as the server placed the bowl of pozole in front of me at Pozoleria El Mexicano in Belmont Cragin (5037 W. Diversey Ave.), I realized I still had so much more to learn about the dish. Here was a bowl of pozole with a heaping portion of what looked like a thick red salsa resting right on top. On the side weren’t the usual assortment of toppings, just some tostadas and a bowl of crema.
What’s going on here?
This is pozole Mixteco estilo Oaxaca ($11.99 for medium, $13.99 for large), a regional variation of the dish. “It’s a very old family recipe,” said Carla Rodriguez, who runs the restaurant with her husband, Ricardo. Though she was born in Mexico City, her family is from the Mixteca region in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. “It’s a very small town, but we have our own pozole,” Rodriguez said.
When her family moved from the area, they made sure to keep the recipe alive. “My great-great-grandmother passed it down to my great-grandmother and so on, until my mother taught it to me,” Rodriguez said.
The star of the bowl is the salsa quemada, which translates as burnt salsa. While brick-red and moderately spicy, it also has a beguiling complexity, with a distinct dried fruit flavor tamed by a toasted nuttiness. Stir the salsa into the liquid, and it completely transforms the broth, coloring it a deep, rustic red. Rodriguez makes the sauce from scratch in the kitchen, toasting multiple kinds of dried red chiles and then mixing it with “a lot of spices,” she said.
Other differences also jump out. Each bowl comes stuffed with shredded chicken, instead of pork. On the side, you’ll find crunchy tostadas and a cup of Mexican crema. Rodriguez advises customers to spread the crema on a tostada, spoon on some chicken and dig in. I’ve never devoured pozole with such abandon.
The Rodriguezes are well aware of the spell the pozole Mixteco estilo Oaxaca casts over people. When Carla Rodriguez moved to Chicago more than 12 years ago, she’d often make the pozole for family events. “She’d make it on Christmas, and people would love it,” Ricardo Rodriguez said. “It’s a different style than most have tried.”
“My family always said, ‘You should have your own restaurant,’” Carla Rodriguez said. But it wasn’t until the pandemic that Carla and Ricardo Rodriguez decided to get serious. The pandemic had mostly shut down their event business, so they turned to Carla’s recipe. Though they considered trying a ghost kitchen, they found a good deal on a storefront in Belmont Cragin and opened in August.
The Oaxacan pozole isn’t the only regional pozole recipe at the restaurant. It also serves pozole estilo Morelos ($12.99). “Morelos is in another state of Mexico,” Carla Rodriguez said. “There they trade the tostadas for two crispy potato tacos on the side, and add boiled egg in the pozole.” This makes for a thicker and more substantial bowl, one perfect for the cooling weather.
If that weren’t enough, the restaurant also serves the style of pozole most commonly found around Chicago. Here it’s called pozole estilo Guerrero ($12.99), and you can even find the three variations — rojo, verde and blanco. The verde is especially good.
Making this many kinds of pozole requires an astonishing amount of work, but Carla Rodriguez won’t think of doing it any other way. “We cook everything right here,” she said. “It takes like eight hours, but that’s how it’s always done.”
5037 W. Diversey Ave., 773-417-7309, facebook.com/pozolemexicano
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