Let's count the reasons we love mole. It's rich and intense. Warm and comforting. Spicy, yet sweet and often savory. A seamless blend of 20 to 40 (or more) ingredients that have been toasted, roasted, ground, blended and cooked. Radiant and colorful. A mix of Old World spices with New World chiles and chocolate. Mole, more than a mere sauce for chicken or enchiladas, is considered Mexico's national dish -- and it has traveled to L.A. restaurants with traditional recipes largely intact.
We're not just talking about Oaxaca's mole negro, the "King of Moles" made with chocolate, about six kinds of chiles, nuts, garlic, onions and hoja santa. Nor the poblano from Puebla, popular for its own unique blend of chiles, plus a touch of chocolate. We also mean Oaxaca's colored moles -- the rojo and coloradito (both red, but with different levels of spice and complexity), verde (mild, with fresh herbs and green tomatoes), amarillo (seasoned with cumin and often served as a soup), manchamanteles (chicken broth and fruit-infused, literally meaning tablecloth stainer), and the smoky chichilo. And any thick sauce with a base of chiles and spices, such as the seed-based pipian, or the fanciful pistachio, tamarind and tequila varieties, among others, that have appeared in L.A. just in the past few years. Turn the page for 10 of our favorite spots.
10. Monte Alban:
At Monte Alban in a West L.A. strip mall, you'll find four of Oaxaca's seven traditional moles -- negro, coloradito, amarillo and verde -- in dishes beyond the typical mole over chicken breast. Why not eat pork or salmon instead? Or a massive burrito drowned in negro? Also note the empanadas, tamales and enchiladas -- all cooked in a distinctly Oaxacan style, and all smeared with mole. Monte Alban also serves its amarillo as a broth for beef stew, as well as chicken with estofado, a tomato-based mole that's more watery than its counterparts. After your meal, visit the Oaxacan market next door to browse the variety of fresh and dried chiles that just appeared in your mole. 11927 Santa Monica Blvd. L.A.; (310) 444-7736.
El Sazón Oaxaqueño is one of the Westside's Oaxacan institutions, offering virtually the same menu and cooking methods since Jonathan Gold praised its "slightly sweetened and vaguely hot" negro and the "extravagantly hot" coloradito in his Counter Intelligence book a decade ago. But on your next visit, consider the amarillo. This mole is more soup than sauce, served in a deep bowl. Use your spoon to sip the thick, slightly oily broth, as hot steam hits your face. Stir up the chicken, potatoes, chayote and green beans. Then dip in a corn tortilla to cool the hot temperature and spices on your tongue. 12131 Washington Pl. L.A.; (310) 391-4721.
Many of the spots on this list are tucked into gritty strip malls, including West L.A.'s Tlapazola. Still, Tlapazola is upscale and elegant in both style and menu. Its mole negro comes with poached chicken, bright green cilantro rice and black beans. Tlapazola takes pride in making such a rich sauce without any lard. The green pipian, made with pumpkin seeds and herbs, is served over grilled salmon and accompanied by a spinach quesadilla. As at many restaurants, Tlapazola's mole-making is a two-day process, at least, and the owner rents a mill at a tortilla factory near downtown to grind the spices and chiles. To drink, don't miss Tlapazola's excellent tequila and mezcal cocktails -- especially the Tlapazola. A key ingredient? Syrup of mole negro, of course. 11676 Gateway Blvd., L.A.; (310) 477-1577.
Turn the page for picks 7 through 5...
Think mole in L.A., and your mind probably jumps to the mole negro at Guelaguetza. The Koreatown restaurant is king of L.A.'s Oaxacan restaurants in size and reputation. Its famous negro -- made with about 26 ingredients and adapted from a generations-old family recipe -- is served with chicken, stuffed in tamales or splashed atop enchiladas. Your other options include typical Oaxacan varieties of rojo, coloradito, verde, amarillo and estofado. Choose a drink from the well-stocked mezcal bar for the perfect compliment. Want Guelaguetza to go? Purchase jars of rojo, coloradito and negro at the restaurant or from a site called appropriately, ilovemole.com. 3014 W. Olympic Blvd., Koreatown; (213) 427-0608.
6. Gish Bac:
Most Mexican restaurants only make a couple of moles, if any, since the preparation is so time-intensive. That's the case at Gish Bac, a bright, cozy restaurant just off the 10 Freeway at Crenshaw Boulevard, where the negro and coloradito each take about two to three days to cook. Not to worry: The negro, made with more than 30 ingredients including dried fruits, star anise, cinnamon and tortillas, is so complex and flavorful it could make you forget other kinds even exist. But you'll want to try Gish Bac's coloradito, too. "The mole negro is more sweet, then spicy, while the coloradito is the other way -- you taste spicy first, then sweet," says co-owner David
Ramos Padilla. The restaurant serves both over chicken breast, along with rice, beans and tortillas. Also save room, or bring friends, to try the goat and lamb barbacoa, another specialty. 4163 W. Washington Blvd., L.A.; (323) 737-5050.
You may know Tamales Lilianas for its namesake dish (on our 10 Best Tamales list), but don't dismiss the rest of the menu. Especially not the mole de cacahuete, or peanut mole, a rare find in L.A. The orange-colored sauce, which blankets shredded chicken, is native to Zacatecas. Unlike some moles with visible grains of what used to be seeds and spices, this mole is creamy. And mellow, too -- ideal for spice-phobes. Tamales Liliana also serves poblano, described as "Zacatecas-style" on the menu in a nod to regional pride. 4619 Cesar E. Chavez Ave., East L.A.; (323) 780-0989; and 3448 E. First St., Boyle Heights; (323) 780-0839.
Keep reading for number 4 on ...
You can't miss the moles at La Casita Mexicana in Bell. Red and green pipian as well as poblano are the first items to hit your table, topping a basket of warm tortilla chips. You may even forget to open the menu. But you should -- try one of the "three moles" options (with the three sauces spooned over flautas, enchiladas, chicken or pork) to continue delving into and comparing flavors. Or, in the morning, taste the mole on the terrific chilaquiles. Jalisco-born chefs Jaime Martín del Campo and Ramiro Arvizu adapted the acclaimed poblano recipe from their grandmothers'. Its 40-plus ingredients include chocolate, cacao, plantains, bread, fruits, seeds, nuts and guajillo, ancho and mulato chiles. It's a mole so delicious that customers want to take it home. Luckily, a bottled version is available next door at Casita's La Tiendita shop. 4030 E. Gage Ave., Bell; (323) 773-1898.
Is it any surprise that Rocio Camacho of Rocio's Mole de los Dioses once worked at Juan's in the San Gabriel Valley? Her portrait even hangs in Juan's dining room, like a patron saint. The restaurant's 13 moles go beyond the common pipian, poblano and negro. (That negro, by the way, is "rich and intense with hints of nuts and fruit and with an edge of bitter chocolate ... like the oil slick of the gods," wrote our critic Besha Rodell in a recent review.) You'll also find the huitlacoche-infused mole de los dioses, warm and fruity manchamanteles, and all-white velo de novia, as well as moles flavored with coffee, tamarind and tropical fruit. Chef Juan Mondragon says his menu was inspired by his grandmother's recipes from Guerrero, Mexico, with pre-Hispanic influences. Most unusual is the cactus mole -- chef Juan Mondragon is a booster of cactus as a health food. Note the green tortillas. 4291 Maine Ave. Baldwin Park; (626) 337-8686.
Moles la Tía, where chef Rocio Camacho first brought her inventive sauces, wins the variety contest with 16 types of moles. So we were disappointed to hear that poblano is most popular! It would be a mistake to order poblano when you could try mango, hibiscus flower, pistachio or velo de novia, also called blanco for its all-white ingredients -- chocolate to chiles to coconut. Your best bet is to order "Cuatro y Cuatro" -- fish, shrimp, chicken and poultry with four moles of your choice served on the side. Unless the duck breast with tamarind mole or frog legs with herb mole seems too unusual to pass up. 4619 E. Cesar Chavez Blvd., East L.A.; (323) 263-7842.
And for our top pick...
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Rocio Camacho, a third-generation Oaxacan, has swept through several L.A. Mexican eateries with her love for multiflavored, multihued moles. She recently found a final destination at Rocio's Mole de los Dioses ("mole of the gods"), with a cozy location in Bell and a bigger branch in Sun Valley. Camacho once said that she intended her moles to evoke the true tastes of Mexico, not just the flavors of Oaxaca. So in addition to the Oaxacan negro, verde and manchamanteles moles, you'll also find moles infused with huitlacoche, tequila and coffee flavors. Moles la Tía, Juan's Restaurante and La Huasteca, where Camacho helped to create menus, serve them, too. But at Rocio's, the chef is in the kitchen, and who knows what she'll invent next. In the recent In Their Own Words II book about Latino cuisine in L.A., Camacho says she has 40 more recipes up her sleeves. 6242 Maywood Ave., Bell, (323) 588-5536; and 8255 Sunland Blvd., Sunland; (818) 252-6415.
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