Entertainment | Restaurants & Dining | July 2005
|Perfect Mole in Puebla|
Greg Britt - The Herald Mexico
I love mole, but mole is definitely an acquired taste. The richly piquant flavor of chocolate, nuts and about 1,000 other ingredients is just not one that non-Mexicans grow up with. Sometimes, after some years in Mexico, I actually crave the thick, brown concoction. But not just any mole will do. I've become very picky about my mole always in search of what I consider to be the perfect mole.
You never know where or when you might find perfect mole. You'll often find it in more upscale restaurants. Sometimes less expensive eateries cut too many corners, substituting ingredients to save money. But I was pretty sure I'd find some perfect mole at Puebla's 14th annual mole festival, which ran this past weekend.
When many people think of mole, they think of "mole poblano," from the state of Puebla. Mole from Puebla, the kind I prefer, might be considered the standard by which other variations are judged.
Although the residents of the state of Oaxaca, sometimes called "the state of seven moles" might beg to differ Oaxacans proudly make mole negro, colorado, amarillo, verde, chichilo, coloradito, and mancha manteles (or tablecloth stainer) all differently colored and flavored, based on the use of distinctive chiles and herbs.
Puebla also claims to be the birthplace of chiles en nogada. Both dishes are said to have originated in local convents. And you'll find wildly varying descriptions of their origins a discussion I'll not get into right now. Suffice to say that proceeds from the festival were shared among the Santa Rosa, Santa Inιs, and Santa Catarina convents. The nuns of which no doubt collectively contributed to the famed dishes.
And Puebla isn't famous for only mole and chiles en nogada (it's also an architectural treat and a great place to buy talavera pottery a wonderful excursion and just two hours from Mexico City). They're also known for picadillo (sort of a beef stew prepared with fruit), tinga (shredded chicken in a barbecuelike sauce), and their own twist on the torta, cemitas, made with a deliciously sweet bread. And any dish you encounter with the "poblano" name means you can expect it to include corn and rajas , small chips of chile poblano, naturally.
I guess books could and no doubt have been written on Pueblan cuisine. So I had better stick to the mole. Although I didn't stick around the mole convention for long. Nope, I couldn't wait to get back to the Fonda de Santa Clara. Undoubtedly Puebla's most popular restaurant. And the one restaurant known in Puebla and everywhere for the best mole. The perfect mole.
Guess what I had? The mole poblano con pollo, stewed meat covered with Pueblan mole, priced at 94 pesos. It's hard to put into words the flavor that is the result of a simmered mixture of various chiles (including chipotle), pepper, peanuts, almonds, cinnamon, anise seed, tomato, onion, garlic, and, of course, chocolate. While there are numerous variations, this one, conceived by the nuns of the Santa Rosa convent (oops, I'm not supposed to get into that), is arguably the best. Is it perfect? Close to. Personally, I like my mole just a little nuttier Santa Clara sprinkles sesame seeds atop a mole that's more chocolaty than nutty. It's obviously made from scratch without shortcuts or premade pastes. It's so good, in fact, that they actually sell it by the kilo for 70 pesos.
Not sure about mole? You can try a sample on top of rice for 30 pesos. Other starters include a superb poblano chile cream, also 30 pesos. Crunchy tostadas with tinga are 40 pesos. Don't waste your time or appetite with the salads.
Santa Clara is situated in an old two-story house. Founded in 1965, they are currently celebrating their 40th anniversary. The place is cozy, very Mexican, intimate and casual. The service staff is friendly and efficient. Neither what I'd call exactly professional nor presumptuous (which would clash with the theme).
What you find on the menu really depends on when you visit. For example, currently they have huitlacoche, the exotic corn fungus. At the end of July they start the chile en nogada season. Check the platillos de temporada section of their menu for updates.
But really, I'd stick with the mole. Although the tinga is good here they do it with shredded beef, priced at 91 pesos. The enchiladas of any variety are outstanding, 70 pesos. And don't overlook their pipian, which is similar to mole minus the chocolate and heavy on pumpkin seeds. You can get it either red or green, 91 pesos. And while it's normally served with pork, I like it with chicken. Ask for both the red and green variety on a chicken breast and you can sample both, divided between a scrumptious serving of Mexican rice.
The Fonda de Santa Clara is an obligatory stop on the trail to find the perfect, traditional mole poblano.
Greg Britt is a free-lance restaurant critic based in Mexico City. firstname.lastname@example.org.