The mole taco at Las Molenderas is a humble creation. Swaddled in a pale, handmade tortilla, the filling is a few spoonfuls of shredded chicken suspended in sauce the color of wet dirt, topped with some crumbles of dry cotija and sliced onions. It costs $2.
What you might not consider is the six hours that mole spent bubbling on the stove, growing deeper, darker and richer with each minute. You also might not consider the mole’s laundry list of 20 or so ingredients, including toasted chilies and cloves, chocolate, plantains, raisins and scraps of charred masa. You certainly wouldn’t consider the lineage of the recipe itself, passed down from the grandmother to the mother of owner Marisol Feregrino.
You really don’t have to consider any of these things. The tortilla is soft and tender; the mole tastes like love. You want to order a dozen more. This is probably the best $2 you’ve ever spent.
Like American barbecue and French bouillabaisse, the story of mole begins with poverty. The legend goes that a convent of 16th-century Pueblan nuns scraped together the last remnants of their barren pantry to create a meal for the visiting archbishop, boiling the mixture for hours until it was transformed into a dense, fragrant sauce. The archbishop loved every drop. In Mexican culture, mole would come to be known as the meal itself rather than just the sauce.
In Los Angeles there are many mole specialists — masters such as Rocio Camacho (Rocio’s Mexican Kitchen), Ramiro Arvizu and Jaime Martin del Campo (Flautas and Mexicano), and the Lopez family (Guelaguetza) — but none are quite as laser-focused as the mother-and-daughter team at Boyle Heights’ Las Molenderas. Unlike Camacho, who is fluent in a dozen or so types of experimental moles, Marisol Feregrino and her mother, Estela Morales, serve two types: mole poblano and mole poblano con chipotle, the latter a less sweet, more sharp and smoky cousin to the original.
Their small restaurant in Boyle Heights, across from the old Johnny's Shrimp Boat, essentially serves the equivalent of that Spam skit from Monty Python. There are mole enchiladas, mole burritos, mole sopes, mole cemitas, envueltos with mole, mole nachos, mole cheese fries, mole flautas, mole quesadillas, mole chilaquiles and mole with fried eggs for breakfast — which is particularly amazing when you mix the runny yolks with mole and dredge a hot tortilla through it. Even with all these configurations, I’m still inclined to go with the standard mole plate: a hunk of boiled chicken (leg, thigh or breast — go with one of the first two) blanketed with oil-streaked mole, sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds and served with a side of rice and refried beans that are haunting in their simplicity. I’ve wiped the plate clean every time.
If you really must order something other than mole, there are a handful of comforting guisados and two nutty, earthy pipian sauces — a close cousin of mole, made with pulverized pumpkin seeds. The herbaceous, tomatillo-spiked verde and musky, chile-scented rojo are available in as many permutations as the mole poblano — and are terrific spread over a oblong hubcap of fried masa and sprinkled with crumbled cheese. Imagine Mexican pizzas before Taco Bell tainted that image.
And then there are those tacos. As a unit of consumption they provide only a few mouthfuls, but the mole’s bitter cinnamon aftertaste can linger for hours. Maybe I was wrong earlier. The rustic tradition of mole might be less about poverty than it is about alchemy. How else can you explain the transition of a pot filled with odds and ends into a glossy, mahogany-tinted miracle?
Las Molenderas, 2635 Whittier Blvd., Boyle Heights; (323) 269-2812, lasmolenderas.com.