“We have to stop referring to mole as a sauce. We have sauce, but mole is the dish.” —Chef Patricia Quintana.
In many ways, mole is one of the most misunderstood dishes outside of Mexico. Mole is a pre-Hispanic dish with a base of dried or fresh chiles that was originally thickened by tortillas or masa and seasoned by wild plants, herbs, and other indigenous ingredients that was eaten with tortillas or tamales.
Today, many moles use spices, proteins, and various additives that arrived with Spanish invaders. Of the over 300 moles found throughout Mexico, around 250 are Oaxacan moles. The most common, mole negro, mole coloradito, mole amarillo, mole rojo, mole verde, and estofado, are served at Oaxacan restaurants in LA. Mole negro and coloradito are usually presented with a chicken thigh or piece of pork, alongside white rice and corn tortillas, while mole verde and amarillo are prepared like a rich stew. Mole amarillo is also popular in an empanada made with a large folded and crimped corn tortilla.
Mole is imperative at any Oaxacan celebration or party, often prepared by a brigade of traditional cooks using all parts of a chicken or turkey, as in the case of mole negro. No two moles are alike, with family recipes being handed down from generation to generation — it’s a labor-intensive dish, but for Oaxacan chefs like Rocio Camacho, it’s routine. Many Oaxacan restaurants in LA import artisanal mole pastes from their mole negro and coloradito due to the difficulty in sourcing all the ingredients and cost of doing it in house, but others, like Camacho, make fresh mole daily.
There are virtually no bad moles in Oaxacalifornia, as the majority of Oaxacan eateries import artisanal mole paste for the more ingredient intense mole negro (black mole) and coloradito (little red mole) but here are some exceptional venues to get acquainted with Oaxaca moles.
Start with Rocio’s Mexican Kitchen and order a unique mole negro from Huajuapan de León, located in Oaxaca’s Mixteca region, unlike any other in town in that it’s made from scratch and leaves out the tomatillos. “My mom always thought the mole was too acidic with the tomatillos so she left them out,” said chef Rocio Camacho. She runs a metric ton of stock through it over it when she has the time to concentrate its spices and fruit, and she even can pull off a vegan version that tastes almost identical to her regular mole negro. That’s mastery.
To try mole verde, amarillo and estofado, Las 7 Regiones de Oaxaca does a great jobs with these more stew-like moles, full of fragrant herbs and bright fresh chiles. Gish Bac makes a beautiful mole coloradito scented by the yuletide notes of nuts, cinnamon and raisins on a silky base of toasted chile ancho and chile guajillo. And for the best Oaxacan mole tour north of Oaxaca, the annual Feria de Los Moles, held each October in Downtown LA features mole negro (black mole), mole coloradito, empanadas de amarillo (empanadas with yellow mole) mole verde (green mole), mole rojo (red mole), pipián verde and rojo (green and red pumpkin seed moles), mole chichilo, adobo (mole with vinegar) mole de caderas (goat mole), mole almendrado (almond mole) and more.
Rocio’s Mexican Kitchen. 7891 Garfield Ave, Bell Gardens, CA 90201
Last 7 Regiones de Oaxaca. 2648 W Pico Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90006
Gish Bac. 4163 W Washington Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90018