The beautiful thing about Mexican stuffed chilis is biting into a pepper and getting something unexpected, be it cheese, meat or, with my favorite chilis en nogada, sweet nuts and raisins.
Much the same could be said for Babita restaurant, which, from the look of its exterior, seems an unlikely venue for one of the most creative Mexican kitchens in Southern California. Babita is housed in a dumpy little house on an unassuming stretch of San Gabriel Boulevard north of the I-10 freeway in San Gabriel. But open the doors and you see white table cloths, a sophisticated menu and a dedicated and enthusiastic chef who will seat you and take your order before the waitress has a chance to say hi. ("I'm always too late," she noted when we told her that the chef had already taken our order).
Chilis and refined sauces are the emphasis at Babita - nuts, moles and the interplay between sweet and spicy are recurring motifs. Two of the best dishes we had were daily specials. A soup duo of carrot and pecan soups, served elegantly with sour cream and chilis en nogada was rich and showed a wonderful contrast between the ingredients. "Don't eat the soups together," the chef cautioned, "because that would be a soup that doesn't exist." On second thought, he added, "but when I give it to you it's yours and you can do what you want with it." We tried them both together and separate. He was right, they were better separate.
I was pleased to find that one of my favorites was also on special. Chilis en nogada is a chili stuffed with raisins and nuts, topped with a walnut cream sauce and tangy pomegranate seeds. The version at Babita, fresh and clean tasting without being too sweet, was on of the best I've had.
Not every dish we had was a winner, but they all had glimmers of brilliance. My fillet mignon was unimpressive, but the pool of tamarind tinged mole poblano it sat on was delicious, and the tiny chili relleno and fried quail eggs that topped it were superb.
There is something so endearing about this place. I love the creativity and energy of Babita as well as the unassuming nature of its exterior. I'm already thinking about what I'll get when I return.
1823 S. San Gabriel Blvd.
San Gabriel, CA 91776