On the Hunt for Oaxaca’s Seven Different Types of Mole Sauce
“Latin women dig me. They really do. Like that woman the other day who gazed at me and said ‘you’ve got more eyes than a pineapple.’”
That’s a brazen, almost pontificatory, snippet of notes from my recent trip south of the border. I wasn’t sure if they’d get published necessarily. They were just stream-of-consciousness thoughts that, in hindsight, were possibly lacking in humility. The musings continue, “literally every couple of days I’ll have a woman yelling ‘guapo!’ down the block or out a car window at me. I wonder if it’s because I’m tall, blue-eyed, stoically well-behaved like a favorite grandfather, with the potential to misbehave at any moment like an ex-lover who’s in prison.” Funny because all the while, being complimented by Latin women, I’d be dumbfounded and focused on the Gael Garcia Bernal lookalikes that might have wandered past the corners of my eyes.
The point is, I was recently in Mexico. I was there to attend a wedding in the world’s third deadliest city before spending four days in Oaxaca writing about their seven different types of mole sauce. That’s roughly two servings of mole per day. Time to get chomping.
Rojo / Pobano
According to el internet, these are the seven moles on offer, six more than the mole negro that’s singularly prolific in San Francisco. A smattering of conversations with Mexican friends only complicates things. There’s one mole, hard to find, that contains an amount of charcoal, making it extra black and extra smokey. Sadly I never find it. My journey turns out to be something of a wild goose chase around town, through steamy markets, classy cafes and holes in the wall. There’s no better way to get to know a city.
I check into a hostel in Oaxaca City, and within minutes I’m able to escape the clutches of a young English guy trying to get me to drink ice-cold tequila with him. I slip out the door and immediately run into what appears to be Critical Mass, born in San Francisco two decades ago. What a nice welcome sign.
I find a nice restaurant in the Zocalo, and naturally I begin my mole quest by ordering the negro, which I’ve had countless times back home. This will be the baseline of my taste exploration. From there, the adventure will continue.
Mole Negro @ Café Primavera
This is a cheesy café on the banks of the bustling town square – I’ll need some time before I’ve got the courage to eat in one of the steaming markets with ribs and carcasses hanging all over the place. This mole is awesome. Perfectly balanced, dark, and spicy enough to render my face on fire within a few bites, especially coupled with a glass of Oro de Oaxaca mezcal. As I eat, my head is filled with the imagery of Bjork naked in a cave surrounded by ripe charcoal walls and barrels of coffee.
Mole Rojo @ Fonda Floresia
This is a humble stall inside of a raucous food court of little interest to tourists because it is frightening and hideous, fluorescent-lit and claustrophobic. In my experience, places like these serve food that’s alarmingly good. The rojo is mild at first, fresh compared with the negro, especially since the chicken feels like it was killed 20 minutes ago. It gets better with every bite. Imagery: I can’t stop picturing Chef Boyardee. When I’m done, I buy a stack of terra cotta plates from a hawker walking by.
Mole Coloradito @ Comedor Fabi
My comfort level isn’t very high – I’ve wandered way out of the tourist zone to another cafeteria-cum-marketplace and everyone’s face says “what the hell are you doing here?” Oh well. This little joint has Mole Coloradito on the menu, and after an awkward conversation in my choppy Spanish I order a plate. I don’t know how to describe this other than a cross between negro (dark, yummy) and rojo (um… red). This mole is just, like, really really good. I wonder if I can ever be a food writer for Bon Appetit Magazine.
My wandering on day two has led me to Los Amantes, a slow-food restaurant with San Francisco pricing. I fancy it a rare opportunity to eat a salad without risk of getting dysentery, but honestly I’m drawn in by the sign outside saying “WE HAVE PULQUE.” If I were fluent in Spanish, I might have made half sense by now of the numerous explanations I’ve received about the difference between tequila, mezcal, maguey and agave. Pulque exists somewhere in this pantheon of magical succulent secretions, but I’m not sure where or how.
My pulque comes out in a beer stein, on ice, so it must have alcohol content somewhere between 5% and 10%. It smells like mop water. It tastes like a cross between mop water and fresh lemonade. It’s far more enjoyable than what I imagine mop water to taste like. In fact, I love it.
The salad I order is La Oaxaca, complete with vinaigrette made of chiles and worms. With the smoked gouda cheese and nopales cactus in the mix, I can’t quite tell what’s going on in my mouth but it feels like a parade. I pay the bill, which is more than the hand-woven blanket I almost bought outside an hour ago, and I continue on.
Later, en route to some faraway place reputed to have great moles, I am sidetracked by the most beautiful little square in the world, centered by a massive fountain, flanked by a 16th-century church, and surrounded by trees and plants and frolicking kids. A small army of women is making food at a long table and I am entranced by the whole scene. I order a memela, which is a tortilla that attains pillow-esque proportions as it sits on a wood-fired griddle.
I’d like to continue describing the memela, and the rest of my mole search, but I have to come clean. I was in Mexico back in January. I started writing this in June. Now it’s November and I can’t find my travel notes. So I’m going to have to resort to memory, and hopefully I can dazzle you with peacocky wordplay in lieu of information that’s particularly factual.
The memela. I bet it was topped with black bean paste, stewed chicken and an artful dusting of queso fresco. I’m using queso fresco as a blanket term for white, bright Mexican cheese, when in reality the cheese on the memela probably has a more specific name. Like someone might come visit the U.S. and say “lager beer” when it’s actually IPA. Silly foreigners.
Mole verde @ Unknown Restaurant It’s green! That’s all I remember.
Flash forward, Oakland, November 2016! Would you believe it? En route to my kitchen to grab a few chips, I just found my travel notebook on a shelf, squeezed between Lonely Planet: Turkey and some booked called The Devil Loves Me which I found on the street and never read but keep on the shelf because it looks badass. Ok, here we go:
It turns out the memela is indeed more interesting than remembered: topped with chorizo, potato, black beans, chipotle salsa and, yes, queso fresco. To drink, I have atol, this delicious, strange, sweet, thick drink made of corn. This is the first time I’ve had it since my introduction to it by some nuns in the highlands of Guatemala in 2012. Glorious.
Mole Verde! Inside one of those locals-only market stalls where there are animal parts hanging from hooks and it’s like a giant steamy airplane hangar that makes you want to faint. The verde is bland. It really makes me question my interpretation of mole — when you try mole negro for the first time, it’s like Wow, here’s this magical sauce where chocolate is joined by myriad other ingredients in a sacred stew made by a woman with an old recipe that calls for exactly two, not one or three, biscuits and precisely 14 pumpkin seeds. The mole verde just tastes like green salsa.
Mole Manchamantel @ El Escapulario
Imagine this: you walk away from bustling SOMA one night and end up at a restaurant on King Street. As you eat, you look out the second-story window at all the people having fun 4 blocks away, and you realize you are the only person in this place other than the owner-chef who is visibly in a bad mood. That is the scene here at this restaurant on the fringes of Oaxaca, but I come in because they have the manchamantel and damnit I want some. Never mind that it illustrates the loneliness of me being the only man in Oaxaca on a tireless mission to write about a bunch of sauce for brokeassstuart.com.
Manchamantel means “table stainer.” I’m not certain this is any messier than most other moles, but it does contain chunks of pineapple and mango, making it the second-interestingest mole I’ve had. Sadly it is pretty bland in taste, masking its lack of depth with some texture confetti.
The interesting thing about El Escapulario is that the menu has a staggering number of moles listed, ones that don’t even fit into the pantheon of the seven mole varieties I thought existed. Mole de caderas? Mole costeno de chicatanas? Que??? At any rate, at this point I’m ready to go outside and eat some mango on a stick.
Mole Amarillo @ Casa de la Abuela
It’s my final night in Oaxaca, and I’ve found a restaurant that serves what will be the final mole in my exhaustive research campaign. This is the second time in three nights I’m finding myself alone in a romantic restaurant, but hey, it’s all in the name of journalistic excellence. I wonder if the waitstaff ever assumes I am a powerful food critic. But then again I’m currently dressed like a member of Jefferson Airplane after a trip to Rishikesh.
This mole is a knockout! Despite the name (which means yellow), it is a deep orange in color. Unapologetically thick, like gravy. Tomato-based, tinged with chipotle pepper hints, and spicy as hell. Easily towards the top of the mole stratosphere. I almost order a second.
After paying the bill and beginning to walk out of the restaurant, the waiter stops me. I’m thinking “shit, was the tip not enough? I don’t even know the tipping etiquette here. I left 14%! I even left seven extra pesos in coins. Is that insulting? I don’t know what else I’d do with those coins. I could give them to a kid outside but I wouldn’t want to encourage him or her to drop out of school. Aghhh.” The waiter disappears behind a door then reappears to present the chef, a spritely little woman in her 70s. “He loved the amarillo!” he tells her (true—I said “me encanta!” as he was clearing my plate). She stares up at me as if about to cry and/or gush with unbridled love. Then abruptly says thanks and moves on her way.
Outside, a woman asks if I want to taste some samples of mezcal. I’m not much of a drinker, but I dig anything related to cacti, so I oblige. She rapidly pours me large samples of every alcoholic concoction this company makes—mezcal blanco, reposado, anejo, coco, cafe, cappuccino, siete herbas, pina, fresca, guayabana, cacao, citric, maracuya and two or three others, all with the listless efficiency of a machine gun. I buy a bottle of blanco then walk out and get some flan from a man on a bicycle. As I walk through the mariachi-drenched square post-flan, I see two girls with huge butts whisk away. Serenading their wake is a pack of guys howling at the tops of their lungs like wolves.
“It must have taken Frank Sinatra a little while to leave his heart in San Francisco. Weeks at the very least, more likely months or years of touring, drinking martinis at Tosca Cafe, taking groupies to the Top of the Mark, riding the cable cars up California Street where he’d get dim sum.” My travel notes foreshadow my looming return to the City by the Bay and also punctuate how I’ve fallen in love with Oaxaca pretty quickly, after precisely four days. It has the greatest town square I’ve ever seen. It seeths with life. It has amazing qualities of light and clouds in the sky. Gorgeous landscapes. A staggering food heritage. Thriving pedestrian culture. A world-class artisan crafts movement. Jaw-dropping architecture. Men in big hats, brooding old ladies, little kids playing with a million balloons with LED lights in them.
In conclusion, I think there’s a reason why mole negro is the king of moles: It contains mother fucking chocolate, and it’s BLACK — like caviar, obsidian, and Samuel L. Jackson. No other mole combines explosive intensity, utter uniqueness and old-fashioned deliciousness. Amarillo comes close but it’s just delicious instead of unique. And verde is interesting but falls just flat by being so light and not tasting like much more than pureed tomatillos with cilantro. Mole means mixture, and its magic lies in blending a staggering list of ingredients to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
Travel-home day. It’s my last two hours in this town, and I spend it strolling around the street market that is especially haywire today. As a man plays “The Sound of Silence” on a flamenco guitar and flute, I see two young women burst out of a shop cradling porcelain baby Jesus figures as if their own offspring. A succession of men with closeted gay lust leer at me with a combination of longing and obligatory bravado. One woman in her 90s begs for alms on the steps of the cathedral while another gets pricked in the arm by a mobile vaccination team. A man sitting on the sidewalk vends rat poison across from a shop that sells raw chocolate by the kilo. On one particular block I buy a pastry, mango on a stick, a decorative mushroom and a bag of edible grasshoppers.
Now on my final walk to grab a taxi to the airport, I meander through the town square again. As if to say goodbye to me, tenfold the regular number of people is here right now—in actuality, for a human rights rally. As the sun bakes, I walk through the cloud of whimsy produced by a woman blowing bubbles in the air, and moments later a woman in a bright red wheelchair pretends to barrel into me before making a last-second turn while laughing maniacally. She yells “bienvenido, amigo!” as I dash off.