We didn’t have nearly enough time in Puebla to explore the local cuisine, especially the variations on mole that we knew we would find. I mean, there was sight-seeing to do, and museums to go to and archaeological sites, and LL’s conference to attend, but eat we must. What we found was that 1) basically the food in Puebla (this is all in the historic district) rated very good to excellent; 2) it was incredibly cheap; and 3) hole-in-the-wall places could be more authentic and reliable than highly touted restaurants.
First, a few words about mole.
We have been misguided, we gringos north of the border, into thinking that mole is a chocolate sauce served with chicken. In reality, chocolate has little to do with mole and is found in few versions; Rick Bayless, for example, in Mexico One Plate at A Time (Scribner, 2000), uses one ounce of chocolate in a recipe that makes seven cups of mole. It’s there to lend depth and intensity, not flavor.
A great mole — and it’s my feeling that mole owns a rightful place in the pantheon of great sauces — is a marvel of depth and complexity and barely pent yet never overwhelming spicy heat. To achieve this result, most moles incorporate three or four kinds of dried chilies, as well as tomatillos, ground peanuts or almonds, sesame seeds, raisins or plantains, garlic, cinnamon and cloves. Preparation and cooking can take, according to some sources, two or three days. There are no shortcuts
The Nahuatl word, molli (or mulli) simply means “mixture” or “combination” and later came to mean a sauce, as in guacamole, a sauce of avocado. The concept of mole precedes Spanish colonial times, but its first official recorded use was in the 18th century in a meal that Sor Andrea de la Asuncion, a nun of the Convent of Santa Rosa in Puebla, concocted, on the order of the bishop, to impress the Spanish viceroy. Her combination of traditional native ingredients, ground together and long cooked, and spooned over turkey, created the model for mole poblano and its variations.
Many Mexican chefs and cookbook writers regard mole not as a sauce but as a dish, and we noticed in the three restaurants where we ate that meat — mole is typically served with chicken or turkey and sometimes pork — plays a minor role. The emphasis is on the mole. This was apparent at La Poblana — “the girl from Puebla” — a tiny restaurant not far from our hotel (the Camino Real), where we stopped for lunch. As far as we could figure out, two sisters were the cooks and a daughter of one of them served as waiter, or perhaps they were three generations. The cooking took place in a back room, while the giant sandwiches called cemitas were prepared at a counter in the small dining room. We ordered the “house” cemita and a plate of enchiladas with mole poblano.
The cemita was stupendous. It consisted of a large roll, from which the white bread part is torn away, filled with sliced, slow-roasted pork, avocado, tomato, quesa fresca and another kind of pale white cheese in strings, all of this topped with a dark brown sauce that gently smoldered with spicy heat.
The surprise was the enchiladas; we couldn’t see them. The plate held what seemed to be a pool of glossy, dark brown sauce sprinkled with sesame seeds and a few sliced white onions. The three enchiladas, it turns out, were simply corn tortillas folded over a few bits of chicken; they were nothing like the enchiladas we get in Mexican restaurants in the United States, not even in family-owned, home-style Mexican restaurants, and it was clear that they served as a vehicle for the presentation of the mole, not the other way around. The boldly aromatic concoction seemed composed, once tasted, of seamless layers of heat and spice, the forceful flavors balancing a hint of sweet fruitiness, the sweet spices balancing the intensity of the inextricably mingled chilies, the nuttiness inseparable from the mole’s roasted, coffee-like character. It was wonderful. And the cost of this meal — cemita, mole enchiladas and two bottle of water — was under $10.
We chose to eat at Meson Sacristia de la Compania because it came highly recommended on a list of restaurants passed out by the organizers of the conference we were attending and because it was written up in 2005 in The New York Times in an article about Puebla. The writer called the restaurant’s mole “the best multidimensional mole poblana in the city.” Alas, success seems to have spoiled Meson Sacristia. The famed mole poblano tasted like — chocolate sauce. In fact on the menu, just so North Americans get the idea — and the restaurant was packed with North Americans — mole poblana is described as “chocolate chili sauce.” No, sorry, we can get “chocolate chili sauce” in the States.
The restaurant occupies several connected rooms of the ground floor of a small hotel, painted bright blue with pink trim, at the end of the Callejon de los Sapos (“Alley of the Frogs”). It’s crammed with old furniture, possibly real antiques, and art of all sorts, and, on the Saturday night we were there, with patrons; it’s a homey place but uncomfortably crowded. We decided to order the whole range — appetizers, soups, entrees and a dessert — assuming that this would be our best dining experience in Puebla. Indeed, the two soups we had were exemplary — I loved the idea of taking a charred chipotle chili and crumbling it into the soup — as was the flan at the end of the meal. Zucchini blossom quesadillas, however, definitely did not bloom. LL’s manchamantel (“tablecloth-stainer”), a tropical mole or, as the menu stated, “a sweet/salty stew” of pork, ancho chilies, plantains, sweet potatoes and pineapple, was more interesting than memorable. The blue objects on the plate, the manager told us, were “like potatoes but not potatoes.” I chose the restaurant’s selection of four moles, each presented in a small bowl. The best (at the top in the accompanying image) was the exceptionally fresh and lively green mole based on tomatillos and jalapenos. I also like the milder mole amarillo or yellow mole. But the disappointment, as I mentioned, was the mole poblana, which was so chocolate-y that it was unpalatable. It seemed to have abandoned the principle of intensity, depth and complexity required of a great mole for the sake of pleasing non-Mexican diners. The cost of this expansive meal, including wine and bottled water, was about $70.
The next afternoon we asked one of the owners of an antique store (he spoke excellent English) where he would eat mole, and we mentioned that we had dined at Meson Sacristia de la Compania the previous night. “Oh, no,” he said, dismissing it with a wave of his hand and a roll of his eyes, “that place has really declined. It’s now only for tourists. We just go around the corner to Fonda La Mexicana. It’s excellent, and nobody knows about it.”
Fonda La Mexicana was indeed just around the corner and was, as the gentleman said, excellent and also immensely appealing. The restaurant is a model of a clean, well-lighted place, a medium size space, open to the street, with polished wood and tiles and plaster and dignified but helpful waiters wearing long white aprons. LL started with a delicious zucchini soup in a milky broth; I ordered a bowl of guacamole. The mole poblano, one with chicken, the other with pork, was as dark and glossy, as vivid and vibrant as it should have been, though a touch fruitier and less coffee-ish than the mole we had at La Poblana, a fact that’s testimony to the differences that must characterize mole from restaurant to restaurant and from household to household. The tab here, including a bottle of wine, was about $25.
Now, a word or two about wine in Puebla. I was, perhaps naively, disappointed that we saw no Mexican wine, despite the fact that the Mexican wine industry, located mainly in Baja California, grew tremendously in the 1990s and into the 21st century. No, mainly what we saw was beer, though our hotel cafe and bar offered wine and so did several of the restaurants where we ate. Inevitably, I suppose, the wine was Spanish and Chilean. At the hotel we drank quite a bit of the Marques de Carceres Blanco by the glass. At Meson Sacristia de la Compania, a bottle of Torres Gran Sangre ded Toro red wine cost about $5; at Fonda La Mexicana, a bottle of the Concha y Toro Casillero de Diablo Cabernet Sauvignon was even less.
The image of mole cooking in a pot by J. Brophy for worldonaplate.org, to accompany an excellent post on mole by Chris Carter; go to http://www.worldonaplate.org/world_on_a_plate/2005/11/index.html