By Benjamin Preston, Founder + Blogger, Via Hero
I’m sitting in the dining room of Pujol and all around me people are celebrating — anniversaries, reunions with old friends and trips to Mexico coming to an end. Somewhat of an aberration, I’m sitting by myself. Having been sent to Mexico City for work, I took it as an opportunity to explore the cuisine and culture of Mexico in my free time. This was my last meal in a country that had overwhelmed my palate with a variety of incredible foods. Still, given the location, this meal was sure to be a memorable one. Pujol’s famous mole arrived — a dish of purposeful contradiction. Its simple: Sauce and tortillas, and yet it’s incredible. It’s the food of family meals and at-home fiestas, but it’s being served in one of the most expensive restaurants in Mexico City. More than any other food, mole represents my food journey through Mexico, and the mole of Pujol was the perfect cap to my Mexican food adventure.
Mole is one of the most common yet varied dishes in Mexican cuisine. The recipe is different according to each region and chef, but usually there are over 20 ingredients, among them chocolate, chili peppers, dried fruit, sesame seeds and almonds.
Though a staple of Mexican cuisine, mole tends to be eaten with family on special occasions (think of it as the Mexican equivalent of turkey dinner with all the fixings). Preparation is an important part of the shared experience. Families gather to prep the ingredients and then simmer the rich sauce for hours. The precise ingredients depend on the region. In Puebla, mole poblano (the dark, chocolaty mole that we in the U.S. think of as the standard) is one of the signature dishes. In Oaxaca, on the other hand, there are at least seven distinct varieties of mole, with ingredients ranging from pineapple and raisin seeds to pumpkin seeds and chorizo. Even in recent times, it was rare to see mole on restaurant menus, especially high-end restaurants in cosmopolitan areas like Mexico City. Slowly, mole has found its way into the restaurant scene.
Oaxaca en México was one of the first restaurants in Mexico City to start serving food from the State of Oaxaca, including the many famous moles from the area. Mole lover that I am, I made a pilgrimage to this regional restaurant on my third day in Mexico City. With streamers, bright colors, and blaring music in the background, Oaxaca en México looks and feels like an Oaxacan fiesta; its food tastes like the love-filled home cooking of a family celebrating a birthday. Unsurprisingly, my favorite dish was the classic mole: a dark, rich and subtly spicy sauce served over a handmade corn tortilla stuffed with chicken, topped with fresh Oaxacan cheese and served with seasoned rice.
After chatting with locals over frosty bottle of cerveza, I discovered that the cuisine of Mexico City has changed in recent years. The city has seen a greater appreciation for Mexico’s own rich culinary heritage. Azul, a fashionable restaurant located in the Condesa district, opened over a decade ago and is known for celebrating the regional cuisine of Mexico. Azul is famous for its enmoladas in mole poblano sauce. Enmoladas, chicken or cheese wrapped in corn tortillas then cooked in specifically in mole sauce, are the cousins of the more widely known dish enchiladas (the only difference being that they are covered in mole sauce rather than the green or red spicy chili-based sauce). Like a visit to Diego Rivera’s murals, Azul’s enmoladas are part of the required itinerary in Mexico City. I was an immediate convert. The dish is perfectly cooked, with fresh corn tortillas, an incredibly complex and decadent mole sauce, and smothered in fresh cheese and pickled onions. Along with the enmoladas, Azul serves beautiful, warm, freshly made corn tortillas so not a drop of that perfect mole sauce goes to waste.
La Capital, a hip restaurant in the artsy neighborhood of Condesa that would work just as well be in Brooklyn, has a sceney atmosphere and is known for their artisan cocktails, tuna tostadas, and fideos secos (a Mexican noodle dish incredibly popular in the city). But perhaps the most interesting dish on the menu is the reinvented take on an old classic: duck enchiladas in black mole sauce. The duck provides the perfect the perfect complement to the mole — flavorful on its own but tender enough to absorb the complexity of the sauce. I wouldn’t be surprised see this combination pop up on menus in New York, London, and San Francisco in the next year.
No journey to Mexico City would be complete without a trip to Enrique Olivera’s Pujol. The mole at Oaxaca in Mexico is classic; at Azul it’s refined; at La Capital it’s on point with food trends. Pujol takes mole to a different stratosphere: somewhere between Michelin-star food and art. In a sense, the mole dish at Pujol could be considered the simplest of all. It’s a plate of mole, with two small dabs of sauce and a fresh tortilla. No enchiladas, rice or any kind of meat. Just mole, presented straight up with little pomp. An incredibly bold main course in a restaurant that’s one of the most expensive in Mexico City. On the first taste, everything becomes clear. The mole at Pujol is quite possibly the best sauce that I’ve ever tasted. The waiter informed me that the sauce has been aged for over four years, which is how it acquires such a deep flavor. To explain that second dab of sauce: It’s served alongside a small touch of new mole, so the diner can taste the difference. Tasting the new mole and the old mole is like tasting a 12-year-old scotch, and then tasting its 30-year-old equivalent. Both are great, but the older version is smoother, subtler and has developed tons of complex, hard-to-describe flavors. After devouring the mole along with handmade tortillas made with hoja santa (a local herb literally translated as “sacred leaf”), I felt my culinary mission in Mexico City was accomplished.
Mole is an incredibly delicious food that exhibits some of the most interesting parts of Mexican cuisine: it’s based on recipes created by the ancient cultures of Mexico, has colonial influences, and is currently being modernized by a cohort of young chefs in Mexico City. To try it in its best forms, there is no substitute to coming to Mexico City and exploring for yourself!
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