L and I love moles. A Spanish corruption of a Nahua word meaning simply “sauce,” today moles span varieties as diverse as guacamole (avocado sauce), chocolate moles (great on enchiladas) and a number of other varieties less common in the United States, but still popular and widespread in Mexico. My trip gave me a chance to sample a couple of mole dishes, as well as learn a little about the sauces and their relation to Mexican culture in general.
Cafe El Popular Restaurante
Avenida Cinco de Mayo 52
México, D.F., México
While in the historic center of Mexico City, I wandered into Cafe El Popular looking for a relatively quick and cheap lunch that would still give me a chance to have some solid Mexican cooking. El Popular looked like just such a place, packed to the brim with local patrons inside a large diner that seemed more out of the 1950s than Mexico’s modern megalopolis. When I arrived around noon, the menu still leaned toward the breakfast end of things, but I managed to find mole de pollo (Chicken mole) and the menu and quickly place my order.
I had been to Mexico previously, and my trip then taught me that there is a reason the “mole” comes first in the dish’s name – the chicken is slathered in mole sauce. Not that I am complaining – smooth and chocolatey, mixing together with the rice and fall-off-the-bone chicken, a solid chocolate mole really can’t do anything wrong to a dish. Especially if it is the focal point. That being said, I did think El Popular’s addition of a copious amount of sesame seeds was a little strange, until I found the seeds being used in dishes across Mexico City. Maybe it is just a culinary fad, but I can’t say I am on board with this one. Overall, I left El Popular satisfied and eager for other moles – particularly ones that break the common chocolate-only stereotype we often find in the USA.
Service Road, North of Pyramid of the Moon
Teotihuacán, Estado de México, México
The next day I went exploring in Teotihuacan, an ancient site outside of Mexico City so massive and pyramid-ridden that a few hours of walking completely wears you out. For sustenance, I made the mistake of trusting my Lonely Planet guide to direct me toward Restaurant Techinanco, which it recommended as having the best food for miles around. The writers were correct about the food, but an hour of looking for the restaurant made me realize they were wrong about the location (it is directly behind, not next to, the Pyramid of the Moon at the north end of the site).
When I finally got to Techinanco (pronounced tetch-ee-non-co), I was the only patron in the restaurant. A quick glance around gave away a few of the restaurant’s secrets – the two mushroom posters at the far end (visible in the photo) leak some of the key ingredients in a number of Techinanco’s dishes. The plethora of masks on the far wall give off a far less touristy vibe than the surrounding establishments – and the effort saved goes directly into the food.
Techinanco’s menu was small, but I made a quick decision: chicken with mole huitlacoche (also spelled cuitlacoche), a green sauce made with mushrooms and maize (wild corn). The friendly owners must have made a pot of the sauce earler in the day, as my food was served almost immediately. And it was heavenly. I can’t really say what I imagined a mushroom / corn mole sauce would taste like, but this was not it. It was almost acidic, with a sharp bite that activated my tastebuds in all the right places, then finished smooth like a good homemade pasta sauce. The finishing taste only made you eat more, and while I filled up quickly during the meal, had I had more than a few pesos in my pocket I probably would have ordered seconds. To top it off, the chicken was grilled to perfection, holding just the right amount of natural juices to let the huitlacoche work its magic. If I am ever back in Teotihuacan, I will definitely make the effort to find Techinanco again (no thanks to the Lonely Planet mapmakers!)
All in all, Mexican food once again fails to disappoint. L and I have plans to try to make our own moles (possibly an upcoming Recipe Friday?) – perhaps we can try to create my new huitlacoche favorite. I doubt it can even approach Techinanco’s creations, however. If in the meantime anyone has any Chicago-area suggestions for some authentic Mexican regional moles, we would love to hear them!