View more photos of Moles La Tia in the "Getting Sauced in East L.A." slideshow.
Have you ever had a great Oaxacan mole negro? It’s a remarkable substance, really, the thick, ink-black essence of up to 80 spices and aromatics, colored with the carbonized remnants of toasted seeds and burnt bread, lashed with bitter chocolate, as fragrant as hot tar, dusty streets and damp earth.
Real Oaxacan mole has been a central element of dining in Los Angeles since it first appeared on the Westside almost 20 years ago, a singular dish on the otherwise unremarkable menu of a café run by Oaxacan chefs who had worked at some of the fancier restaurants in town. A couple of years later, the first Guelaguetza opened as a full Oaxacan restaurant, with at least four or five of Oaxaca’s famous seven moles available, including a really fine molecoloradito. The dozens of basic Oaxacan restaurants that followed completed the vocabulary of local moles, so that it was possible to compare the cumin wallop of ten molesamarillos or the herbal blast of half a dozen green moles, to argue whether the bright-red goat barbacoa counted as one of the classic seven moles or whether that was reserved for the seldom-seen chichillo, and to wonder why even the best moles seemed to be ladled over reboiled chicken, pork spine, or a peculiar saucer-shaped bowl of cartilage that I could only imagine as a cow’s knee cap. Like fusion sushi or pad Thai, Oaxacan mole became an important part of the Los Angeles mosaic.
The newest chapter in local Oaxacan cooking is being written at Moles La Tía, a kind of cenaduria in the Eastside district of Maravilla just past the 710, an intimately lit room with bright paint on the wall, and moody oils of grafitti-spattered Los Angeles River crossings. On weekend mornings, the long, wooden tables are filled with Eastside families stopping by after church for eggs scrambled with diced cactus, chilaquiles, or bowls of brightly spiced menudo, some of the best in town, flavored with a bit of mint. Lunch sees mostly white-color workers from the plants in the hills just north; dinner, people from as far as Santa Monica — word got around about La Tía almost the moment it opened, from a widely noticed post on the Teenage Glutster blog and at a big event at Union Station last summer, featuring Los Angeles Mexican restaurants and vintages produced by Mexican-American winemakers, at which La Tía stole the show.
La Tía’s chef Rocio Camacho makes decent sopes piled with Yucatecan-style cochinito pibil and a wonderful plate of fried turnovers, quesadillas, stuffed with vegetables and cheese. The flautas are nearly the size of actual flutes. The lamb barbacoa she produces on weekends is as meltingly delicate as the stuff produced by the Guerrero-born specialists, and the thick, rustic corn tortillas her kitchen makes to order are better than some of the entrees at Michelin-starred restaurants. Meals here include a bowl of soup — I like the black-bean puree touched with a hint of jalapeño chile. There is no alcohol, but the Oaxacan-style horchata drizzled with pink cactus-fruit syrup is as good as I’ve ever had, and you may occasionally luck into aguas frescas handmade with cucumber and mint, tamarind pulp, or lime-spiked fresh alfalfa, with an intense green taste to which wheatgrass juice can only aspire.
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Camacho’s specialty, of course, is mole, most of the Oaxaca seven and beyond — almond mole on chicken and pistachio mole on salmon, tamarind mole on roasted duck breast and red pumpkinseed-based pepian on pork, or intense machamantales, “tablecloth-stainer” mole flavored with dried fruits, on veal. If you have been to La Casita Mexicana, you may recognize the tricolor enchiladas glazed with red pepián, green pepián and a white wedding mole, the colors of the Mexican flag. If you’ve ever wanted to compare a ruddy, first-rate mole Poblano with its Oaxacan equivalents, this is the place to conduct the experiment.
In just a few months, La Tía has already established itself as one of the most serious Mexican restaurants in Los Angeles, up with Babita, Chichen Itza and La Casita Mexicana in complexity and deftness, imaginative use of local and imported ingredients, and skill in translating traditional, pre-Colombian flavors for the 21st-century palate. I’m nothing like an old Oaxaca hand, even there I suspect it’s hard to find dishes like Camacho’s giant frog legs sauced in a pale-green herb mole crackling with the earthy, minty taste of hoja santa; her coffee mole — the coffee comes across almost as a dark, cardamom-like spice — or the magenta mole made with red wine and beets, like a magical potion out of Like Water for Chocolate. If you want to go on a mole spree, you can get one of the shared botana platters with grilled chicken, meat and fish and as many little bowls of mole as you want to pay for.
Still, I always end up with the quail in the traditional black mole, so dark that it seems to suck the light out of the airspace around it, spicy as a novela and bitter as tears, a mole whose aftertaste can go on for hours. La Tía’s mole negro appears so glossy and rich that I am always tempted to test its consistency by stabbing an index finger into it, and the resulting stain lingers as long as the empurpled digits of patriotic Iraqi voters. The last time I was as inspired by glossy black, it was part of Charles Ray’s infamous sculpture Ink Box, and it was enshrined in a major museum of art.
Open daily, 9 a.m.-8:30 p.m. No alcohol. Lot parking in rear. MC, V. Dinner for two, food only, $22-$46. Recommended dishes: quesadillas; quail in Oaxacan black mole; machamantales; passionfruit mole; menudo (weekends only). 4619 E. Cesar Chavez Blvd., L.A., (323) 263-7842.