On the plate in front of me crouches a small half-chicken, positioned on its side as if curled in the fetal position. Somehow, the plating and the bird's orientation make it especially hard to remove any meat — the breast is hidden under the protective wing, while the leg and thigh don't want to break free from the carcass and yield to my fork.
I barely care about that, though, just as I don't care that it is, in fact, chicken on the plate rather than the advertised quail, or that everything I ordered — appetizers and entrées — arrived on the table at the same time, or that quite a few of those appetizers and entrées are not even what was ordered.
What I care about is the mole negro surrounding the crouched bird. This, finally, is a reason to be excited about this place. This is something to love.
"This place" is Juan's Restaurante, the "pre-Hispanic" Mexican restaurant with a fascinating menu, which opened in 2010 in Baldwin Park. The pre-Hispanic moniker refers to the idea that, before European influence, the traditional food of Mexico was a far healthier cuisine. Many of the dishes here center around nopales, or cactus paddles, which chef Juan Mondragon believes possess many health benefits.
Mondragon's restaurant is colorfully decorated, with bright pink and deep blue walls and Day of the Dead iconography. He has cooked for Oprah and Martha Stewart. He thinks cactus can cure cancer. He uses stevia and pineapple juice rather than sugar to sweeten dishes. All of which drew me to Baldwin Park like catnip, distance be damned.
On my first visit, on a Wednesday night, I found an empty restaurant in a strip mall parking lot. At one end of the dining room on a large-screen TV, a gentleman in a sombrero and a sparkly suit crooned to an appreciative crowd.
We ordered empanadas filled with flor de la calabaza (squash blossom), which were golden-crisp on the outside and fresh and sweet on the inside, served with a tart guacamole. Pineapple and cactus agua fresca was green and slightly sweet but mellow, with the aloe-like flavor of the cactus.
Then came the weirdness. A stuffed cactus dish from the special cactus menu presented the plant in all the ways you might imagine it while hoping to be proven wrong: There were slabs of unwieldy, kinda slimy gray-green, with a mixture of cheese and squash blossom between its layers, oozing and falling out from the cactus stack in an ungainly mess.
The restaurant's signature dish, chiles en nogada, was a poblano pepper stuffed with beef and dried fruit and topped with a walnut sauce and pomegranate. The poblano tasted candied, the filling like fruit cake. The white walnut sauce had that eerily sticky, intense sweetness given by stevia. The entire dish was like pepper beef in dessert form. Even the handmade cactus tortillas were rubbery and leaden.
It was hard to turn to dessert after this dessertlike dinner, but the cactus eggwhite-only flan and the hand-churned rose-and-almond ice cream seemed like perhaps they'd save our evening.
They didn't. The cactus flan was pasty, green and just straight bizarre, and the hand-churned ice cream was both icy and grainy from the almond. Its nutty, perfumed flavor was interesting but not enough to redeem it.
Yet Mondragon was doing something interesting, and ambitious, with classic Mexican ingredients. All of this effort — the labor-intensive dishes, the devotion to health and history — had to count for something. Juan's had to be better than this.
On a Saturday night, the dining room was busier, and the one waitress on the floor was completely overwhelmed as a result. But it was on this Saturday night we found the moles.
For those moles, it was worth wading through the slimy cactus and sweet poblano.
That mole negro: Deep brown and glossy as polished walnut, it's rich and intense with hints of nuts and fruit and with an edge of bitter chocolate. It's like the oil slick of the gods.
And speaking of gods, I'm pried away from my mole negro by a plate of mole de los dios, which tops thinly sliced steak (advertised as filet mignon — I am deeply skeptical, although the steak is tender enough). Slightly less sweet and more funky than the negro, this mole is made from huitlacoche, or corn smut, or, if you believe the menu, "Mexican truffle." Its flavor, which is like the damp sweet forest floor, is alluring over mashed potatoes turned green from the addition of cactus.
Across the table another mole beckons — pine nut, sweetened ever so slightly with pineapple, under a collection of fat shrimp. Does it matter that the shrimp arrived cold, when that odd, nutty, almost impossibly rich, cream-colored mole is involved? Not really, although warm shrimp would be nice.
Next to me, my child is scarfing enchiladas swathed in a pert green sauce. They aren't the enchiladas he'd ordered, but no one's complaining.
It has taken some time, but how nice to arrive, finally, at this place of frenzied but happy eating.
Try the cactus mole over the enchiladas de la casa rather than with the slightly dry chicken breast, and ask for samples of the off-sweet tamarind and the murky, haunting pistachio rather than eating them over the salmon they're presented with as entrées. You can scoop the samples up with Juan's very good corn chips rather than bothering with overcooked fish.
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Juan's makes all its own masa products — both corn- and cactus-based — plus 12 moles and a roster of labor-intensive desserts. You want to adore a restaurant that strives for such heights. It's a restaurant with all the right goals, an obvious labor of love.
Now if it could just take on a little less and keep its efforts on the strong suits: on the agua frescas, the delicious empanadas, and those fantastic, varied moles. If Mondragon could perhaps put more than one waitress on the floor on busy nights, for her sake as well as ours. If he could pare back and focus, Juan's just might be able to live up to its own ambitions.
JUAN'S RESTAURANTE | 4219-4299 Maine Ave., Baldwin Park. | (626) 337-8686 | Mon.-Fri., 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sat. & Sun., 8 a.m.-9 p.m. | juansrestauranteinc.com | Entrées: $9-25 | Beer and margaritas served | Lot parking