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By Bonnie Caton
You almost can’t visit Mexico’s ancient city of Oaxaca without trying its signature sauce, mole. If you’re tempted by sweet and savory flavors wrapped together with a little heat that lingers on the palette, you’ll be pleased to find it’s on nearly every menu as a featured dish as well as mixed into tamales, tacos, and other Oaxacan delights.
The word mole comes from the ancient Aztec word mōlli, meaning “sauce.” Another popular Mexican invention, guacamole, or “avocado sauce,” derives from the same word.
On its own, the word mole has morphed into one of the best-known traditional dishes of Mexico, and Oaxaca claims to be its birthplace. Rich and warm, the hearty sauce takes on countless forms, all tied by the presence of chilis and hours of grinding, grilling, mixing, and simmering.
Poblano, or Rojo (red mole) – this well-known mole often includes raisins, ancho chiles, and almonds, making it both sweet and spicy.
Negro (black mole) – so dark it’s almost black, mole negro comes sweet and chocolatey with hints of cinnamon and chile.
Colorado (red mole) – deep brick red and still a little chocolatey, it warms the palette with a slow, tongue-wrapping spice.
Amarillo (yellow mole) – light brown in color, this mole tastes almost like curry, with cumin and amarillo chiles adding to the flavor.
Almendrado (almond mole) – with a signature hint of almond, this light-colored mole sauce does not include chocolate, but delivers in nutty flavor.
Verde (green mole) – pumpkin seeds and green chiles contribute to the color of this rich mole that stands out from the others with its lighter, fresh green flavor.
In truth, there are as many varieties of mole as there are Oaxacan grandmas. Locals almost never eat mole at restaurants. They eat it at home, where the secret ingredients in the family recipe have made their way down through generations. One family might add peanuts, while another prefers pumpkin seeds. One might go crazy on the chocolate, while another prepares a less-sweet, spicier concoction.
If you don’t have a Mexican family to join for dinner, here are six excellent places to experience a true Oaxacan mole:
Serving traditional Oaxacan food to tourists and locals alike, Los Pacos takes their mole seriously. For the uneducated mole eater, this is a great place to start. Ask about the seven kinds of mole on the menu and they’ll bring you a taster dish with a sample of each and some tortillas for dipping. Suddenly the differences are less subtle when you taste them side-by-side. You can then order your favorite – almost all come with a side of meat, rice, and a fried banana. The upstairs terrace is open to the breeze, but note that it is smoker-friendly.
Presented with a pink bougainvillea flower, the mole here – like just about everything at this cute restaurant – is hard to describe without using the word “perfect.” At this bright and colorful courtyard restaurant, the most tender chicken is paired with a modest serving of sauce, rice, and fried banana. Just enough to fill you up without immediately inducing a post-meal nap. When you order the mole, they will bring you a bib with a little bow-tie and attach it to your neck with a flourish.
Presentation is paramount at Cathedrale, where you can enjoy a more formal dinner to the tune of live guitar music in the intimate stone courtyard. Order the sopa verde to watch your waiter bring you an empty bowl with blue corn strips in it, then reappear to pour a silky green liquid as if performing a magic trick. The mole here is equal to its less-expensive counterparts, but the soft music and dimly-lit atmosphere, paired with innovative side-dishes, make up the difference in price. Try the seasonal local homemade sorbet – a fascinating sampler of flavors like burnt milk, rose, and cactus fruit. A perfect way to celebrate your last night in Oaxaca or indulge in a romantic date night.
On pleasant spring or fall days, you can dine here with all of the windows open and enjoy the breeze while you look out at the cathedral and the zocalo, or main city square. Situated on the second floor, you can watch as couples stroll together through the park below and friends meet up to chat.
For a true mole lover, the Degustacion de Cuatro Moles is a delectable, 4-mole sampler with chicken that’s so tender it falls apart at the touch of a fork. Try the margarita con destilado de agave (mescal margarita) – sweet, tart, and smoky, this is possibly the best use of mescal you’ll find.
Develop your own family mole recipe in a cooking class at La Cocina Oaxaqena. Here, you’ll learn to roast chiles, grind onions, and combine the many ingredients to make – and then eat – your own mole. Chef Gerardo’s class, held in his mom’s colorfully decorated house in downtown Oaxaca, starts with a market tour and ends at her table, with perhaps the most satisfying meal you’ll have while you’re in town. This is as close as it gets to grandma’s house without having your own grandma nearby.
Aside from mole, you’ll make and enjoy tamales and tortillas, too. Private classes are $100 per person in the morning and $80 in the afternoon or $55 per person for groups. Expect to spend about four hours.
If you like to impress your friends with very little effort, take home some mole powder or paste and whip some up in your own kitchen. To prepare, add chicken and water. Running around, pretending you’ve been sweating away in the kitchen all day is optional. Your friends will likely love it either way. Mole powder in a variety of flavors and costs a couple of dollars (or about 40 pesos) for about a quarter-kilo bag from one of the many spice stalls in the cavernous Benito Juarez market. Makes about eight servings.
Bonnie Caton is a writer, photographer, and travel addict living in Brookings, a hidden gem on the Southern Oregon Coast. Currently working with Great Escape Publishing, she’s written over 1,000 articles on travel, photography, and how to combine them for a fun side-income. You can catch her photography at www.bonniecatonphotography.com, or follow her Instagram account @bonniecatonphoto.