When Akhtar Nawab's beloved, quirky New York restaurant Eletarria closed in 2009, the chef was at a loss—but not for very long.
After nearly two decades of cooking American and European food under chefs like Tom Colicchio and Traci Des Jardins, the newly minted free agent started experimenting with Mexican cuisine, most recently at Choza Taqueria, a cheerful counter-order New York City micro chain selling superfresh two-bite tacos, tostadas, tortas and more.
"It's humbling to start from scratch with a cuisine and work your way up," says Nawab. So he immersed himself in Diana Kennedy and Rick Bayless cookbooks and toyed endlessly with chiles and spices. His Indian heritage helped: "A tortilla is like a roti, salsas are essentially chutneys and meats in both cultures are heavily spiced and slowly cooked."
Chef Akhtar Nawab
Still, Nawab's cross-cultural flourishes appear in subtle guises; Choza is first and foremost a taqueria. So when something like pistachio mole (see the recipe) shows up on the menu as a dressing for fish tacos, it stands out.
The sauce is loosely based on mole verde, a tomatillo and herb-packed dressing that's worlds apart from the more familiar, chocolately mole poblano. In Nawab's version, charred vegetables and ground pistachios create a depth of flavor that's ten times more intense than mole verde alone. It's earthy and rich—not necessarily the words you associate with a plate of fish tacos, but in Nawab's hands, it more than works.
Making the sauce at home is relatively easy: It starts with slowly roasting tomatillos, onions, garlic and serrano chilies until they're thoroughly charred. "Turn [the vegetables] gently so every side gets blackened, but their liquids stay put, getting sweeter and more concentrated as they cook," says Nawab.
Then the vegetables are simmered with warm spices like cinnamon, cumin and cloves, familiar ingredients in both Indian and Mexican cooking. Blending in fresh cilantro and roasted pistachios at the end amps up the green factor (both the color and the flavor).
At Choza, Nawab uses the mole atop tacos filled with meaty roasted fish like striped bass or mahimahi before dressing each taco with pickled cabbage, chipotle mayo and a jicama-mango salsa. But you could just as easily spoon it onto poultry or pork.
In fact, I wouldn't be mad at finding a bowl of the thick, spicy sauce nestled in a bowl of tortilla chips instead of guacamole—sure, it's a little out there, but then again, Nawab's mole plays by its own rules.
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