Mexican fare is having a moment. But it's not just tacos and mescal. In the restaurant world, chefs are introducing curious diners to the nuances of the cuisine, whether it's modern Mexican at Enrique Olvera's Cosme or regional differences at spots like the recently opened Holbox in L.A., which specializes in seafood from the Yucatán. And if there's one dish that best represents the incredible but oft-overlooked depth of the cuisine, it has to be the complex, sometimes-intimidating sauce that can consist of more than 20 ingredients. We're talking, of course, about mole. With a new era of Mexican food coming up across the country, it's time, once and for all, to get to know this special sauce.
Like curry, mole has no set recipe. There are, however, common traits: heat from chiles, multifaceted spice, sweetness and nuttiness, which all come together in a sauce thickened by nuts/seeds, tortillas, bread or plantains. Whatever the ingredients, to make the sauce, one usually starts by roasting and grinding the chiles before simmering everything down to a thick consistency. The balance of sweet and savory elements contributes to mole’s extraordinarily intricate flavor, which is perfect slathered over poultry, meats, vegetables, enchiladas or just sopped up with a tortilla.
Photo: Araceli Paz
Although the southern states of Puebla, Oaxaca and Tlaxcala all lay claim to the creation of mole, the origin remains disputed. Today, there are more regional variations than it's possible to try (although we wouldn't shy away from the challenge).
Mole poblano from Puebla is made from multiple types of chiles (including ancho, pasilla and mulato); some combination of sesame seeds, peanuts, pumpkin seeds and almonds; a host of herbs and spices like thyme, marjoram, aniseed, coriander, allspice, cloves, cinnamon and black peppercorns; tomatoes and tomatillos; onion and garlic; raisins or other dried fruit; chicken stock; and Mexican chocolate. Thickeners like bananas or plantains, corn or tortillas, and white French bread might also make an appearance.
Oaxaca has seven mole variations: mole negro (black), which is similar to mole poblano and includes hoja santa, a licorice-like herb grown in Oaxaca; mole coloradito, which has a reddish-brown hue, thanks to an abundance of chiles, chocolate and plantains; mole colorado or mole rojo (red), which also has several varieties of red chiles but does not include chocolate; mole verde (green), aka mole pipián, which is bright green from pumpkin seeds and lots of herbs; mole amarillo (yellow), which has yellow chiles and hoja santa and no chocolate; mole chichilo, which features beef stock; and manchamanteles, which literally means “tablecloth stainer” and is more like a stew with pieces of chicken or meat and fruit in it.
Then there is a slew of other mole variations with indeterminate origins. Mole adobo uses adobo chiles, mole almendrado features almonds, mole ajonjoli boasts a tehina-esque flavor due to sesame seeds and mole de cacahuate comes with peanuts. There are likely dozens more.
Photo: Courtesy of Guzina Oaxaca
The best way to wrap your head around all these variations, of course, is to try some, and there's no better place in the world to do so than Mexico City. A blossoming travel destination in its own right, the capital is calling your name for more than just mole, so get ahead of the curve and find out what you've been missing.
Here are Mexico City's best places to whet your appetite in the wild and wonderful world of mole.
World-famous chef Enrique Olvera’s Mexico City flagship recently moved to new digs, but thankfully his famous aging mole made the trip unharmed. Appearing on the tasting menu as Mole madre, mole nuevo ("mother mole, new mole"), the dish is continually aging (on March 27, ours was 1,236 days old). Olvera presents the dish as a bull’s eye, with the dark-brown mole madre forming the outer circle and the bright-red mole nuevo in the center. It’s served somewhat atypically, without a protein—there are three mini blue corn tortillas imprinted with whole hoja santa leaves for sopping up the sauce, but once those run out, don’t hesitate to grab a spoon.
This hole-in-the-wall is run by a native Oaxacan family and offers several varieties. The mole negro has more than 100 ingredients, including sesame seeds, plantains, burnt tortilla ashes, cacao seeds, chocolate and five types of chiles, including the rare Oaxacan chilhuacle. It’s served a few ways, but our favorite is in the form of an enmolada, a chicken-filled tortilla smothered in the mole and topped with cheese.
This restaurant in the ritzy Polanco neighborhood serves several Oaxacan varieties of mole, each with a different protein. There’s mole negro with the traditional turkey, coloradito with pork, amarillo with goat, chichilo with lamb and almendrado with beef tongue.
This cozy spot in Roma Norte specializes in traditional Poblano food, offering a mole poblano that uses a recipe based on a 19th-century cookbook. It’s served over chicken and rice or over champandongo, a tortilla casserole layered with chicken and cream. There’s also a spicy mole verde, an almendrado, a pepián version and even varieties with blueberries and figs.
Mercado Jamaica, the flower market, is one of the best places to buy mole as a take-home paste or powder, to be reconstituted with broth. Moles Atocpan offers seven types, including two versions of poblano, a red chocolate-less rendition made with chiles, the sesame-laden ajonjoli and a peanut-y cacahuate.
Located near Chapultepec Park in the Tacubaya neighborhood, this restaurant has been serving traditional Poblano cuisine since 1947. Its specialty, mole poblano, comes atop chicken and a side of rice. There’s also mole pipián and manchamanteles with chicken or pork.
Devorah Lev-Tov is a contributing writer for Tasting Table who travels the globe—and traverses NYC block by block—in search of her next amazing meal. See her latest adventures on her Instagram at @devoltv.
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