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...