When Mexican chef Gonzalo Guzmán opened his San Francisco restaurant Nopalito in 2009, he wanted to serve a small bite to welcome guests and prime them for the meal ahead. So he thought back to his childhood, growing up in the small village of Catemaco in Veracruz, where his mother would often prepare fried peanuts with crushed árbol chilies, a squeeze of lime juice and some salt. He wasn’t satisfied with the peanuts he could find in San Francisco, so he tried the idea with chickpeas. They quickly became a hit. Now, every day at Nopalito, the cooks fry up a couple bags worth of chickpeas, sprinkle them with chili powder when they’re still hot, and watch them get devoured.
Crispy, spicy chickpeas may be hard to argue with, but what makes Guzmán's table snack so addictive is the in-house spice blend he uses to coat them. Equal parts crushed dried árbol chilies and dried guajillo chilies, it’s a spicy—but not too spicy—mixture with deep, toasty notes that recalls the chili powder the chef grew up eating. “We had a lot of citrus fruit around us,” Guzmán says, “and we used to climb up the trees and would just cut them in half and sprinkle chili pepper on them.”
They always had árbol chilies around, and though he played around with salt and garlic powder when he was developing this blend, he wanted to stick to what he would normally have had at home. The addition of guajillo chiles, which are similar in flavor to árbol, add an extra level of heat. To calibrate the heat level, increase or decrease the amount of guajillo chilies.
“I left it pretty simple,” he says.
The chili varieties are also easy to find at supermarkets. (Read more about them here.)
Covered and stored in a cool place, the spice blend will keep for months—although use it as liberally as Guzmán, and it won’t last that long. “I love it for snacks. Squeeze some lime juice, so it gets that limey, spicy taste that a lot of people get addicted to,” he says. In addition to coating fried chickpeas, here are just some of the ways the chef recommends using his Nopalito blend:
Sprinkle liberally over popcorn for an extra kick. Or do the same on chicharrones (fried pork skins).
Sprinkle a pinch on fruit, such as pineapple or watermelon, along with a pinch of salt.
Use the spices to season a marinade for fish or carne asada.
Stir a tablespoon into a cup of lime juice and then whisk in olive oil for a bright vinaigrette. Season with salt.
Just before serving, sprinkle on top of soup and stews, where, as Guzmán says, “the flavor really holds.”
Find the recipe from "Nopalito: A Mexican Kitchen," by Gonzalo Guzmán and Stacy Adimando, below.