The Mexican City Every Food-Loving Traveller Should Visit

Few things in the world give me a more joyous flood of sensory overload than a walk through a sprawling market in Oaxaca (officially Oaxaca de Juárez), the capital of Mexico’s most culturally and geographically diverse state, which shares its name. At least 16 indigenous languages are spoken by people in the state’s eight regions, which span from the Pacific coast through cloud forests to arid valleys and mountains. Seeing all that Oaxacans gather and grow—from umpteen mango varieties to baskets of toasted grasshoppers can boggle the mind and induce prodigious hunger. No family of dishes satisfies that hunger or expresses Oaxaca’s diversity like mole (pronounced mole-ay). Often referred to as sauces, moles are actually the main act, eclipsing whatever protein or vegetable they’re ladled over. One most often hears about “the seven moles of Oaxaca,” some denoted by the colour their combined ingredients acquire—red, yellow, green or black—though there are actually dozens of varieties. Some, like the yellow or the green—lush with fresh herbs, tomatillos and chillies—can come together quickly with little more than a blender. Others, like the fearsomely complicated Oaxacan black mole (or mole negro), can demand two or more days to make, calling for upward of 30 ingredients (including chocolate).

Holy Mole

These five restaurants in Oaxaca offer wildly different versions of mole—and everyone is worth the trip. Those who hope to deepen their understanding of how the market’s mountains of chillies and spices make their way into the multitude of moles should follow my lead: Take a class with chef Pilar Cabrera, owner of La Olla restaurant and Casa de los Sabores cooking school ($85 a person, casadelossabores.com). My lesson began with a walk through La Merced, one of Oaxaca’s smaller public markets, where Ms Cabrera decoded the chillies, an essential part of all moles, pointing out bringers of heat or smokiness or fruitiness. After gathering the ingredients, my fellow mole aspirants and I piled into cabs and zipped over to Ms Cabrera’s house where she coached us through cooking a yellow mole with chicken. Over the course of a few hours, one of the region’s great dishes shed some of its mystery. If you’d rather spend more time eating, and less time shopping and cooking, sample the superior moles at one—or all—of these five places.

The Breakfast Mole

Ancestral Cocina Tradicional

From the city’s main square, the 25-minute morning walk to this restaurant in the residential neighbourhood of Xochimilco feels like a trip to the country. Sit on the tree-canopied patio, order an eye-opening cafe de olla, and listen to the ca-chunk of the looms in the weaving workshop set into the ravine opposite the restaurant. With your coffee, have a mole amarillo empanada—a large handmade tortilla folded over a filling of chicken and yellow mole, the colour of a ripe persimmon. Black mole ice cream served in a sweet fried-plantain boat, is the dessert that breakfast lovers never knew they needed. (Or have it at supper after a plate of nutty mole almendrado with suckling pig). 1347 José López Alavez, Barrio de Xochimilco, facebook.com/AncestralOaxaca

The Homestyle Mole

Comedor Familiar Los Almendros

For decades, workers from the nearby baseball stadium and hospital have gravitated to this family-run restaurant. The menu changes daily, with a few constants, including a textbook mole coloradito, umber with guajillo and ancho chillies, warm with cinnamon and allspice. Should you arrive on the right day, a must is the rust-coloured estofado—literally stew but considered a mole. Thickened with sesame and briny with olives, it’s served over chicken or spoon-tender tongue. You’ll want to linger, both to take in the walls crowded with paintings and faded photos of telenovela stars who’ve dropped by and to be fussed over by owner Lionel Leyva, Delfina Soledad Morga and their family—time well spent. 109 Tercera Privada Almendros, facebook.com/ComedorFamiliarLosAlmendros

The New Wave Mole

El Destilado

This restaurant and bar sit in the city centre, a short walk from the botanical garden. Traditionalists might consider the moles that often figure in the tasting menus here downright heretical. A recent innovation: a mole (pictured at right) whose primary components were beets and chile morita (smoked and dried red jalapeños), thickened with caramelized walnuts, peanuts and sesame. Another traded spice for umami, care of mushrooms and miso. The restaurant owners bottle obscure agave spirits under the Cinco Sentidos label. Try their Pechuga de Mole Poblano, which had mole poblano with chicken added during distillation. The finished spirit is clear like mescal, with a savoury sweet scent of chilly and spices. 409 Cinco de Mayo, eldestilado.com

The Preindustrial Mole

Restaurante Tlamanalli

In Teotitlan del Valle, a village about a 40-minute trip by car from Oaxaca, Abigail Mendoza and her sisters make mole the old-fashioned way—by hand-grinding ingredients on a stone metate before cooking them together. The sisters work in an open kitchen wearing a traditional Zapotec dress that underscores a sense of being out of time. Be on the lookout for seldom-seen varieties of mole, like prehispanic Seguesa with coarse nubs of toasted corn in it, served over chicken. The restaurant’s operating hours are limited (currently 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., Friday through Sunday) so we recommend you call in advance to confirm a table. While you’re on the line, ask if anything special is available, like a yellow mole with rabbit or wild mushrooms. 39 Avenida B. Juárez, Teotitlán del Valle, 951-524-4006

The Vegan Mole

Hierba Dulce

Let’s start with this restaurant’s utterly photogenic trappings—tableware made by Perla Valtierra, whose work adorns tables at top restaurants like Mexico City’s Quintonil, and a courtyard lined with cacti and bird of paradise flowers. “People may not notice that this is a political and a social project,” said Hierba Dulce’s co-owner Mariana Favela. Other keywords: matriarchal, vegan and “deindustrialized” (meaning: industrially processed or refined ingredients are banned). The kitchen operates under the watchful eye of “Mayora” Georgina Cruz, who tutored many of Mexico’s best chefs in the art of mole. She offers seven varieties, including a radically good mole negro, served enchilada style over potato-filled tortillas and sprinkled with a crumbly almond “cheese.” It has all of the richness and complexity of its typically stock- and fat-fortified analogues. 311 Calle Porfirio Díaz, hierba-dulce.com

Star-Spangled Moles

Where to find the best examples of this classic dish stateside.

Los Angeles

Guelaguetza

Named for the indigenous cultural festival held in Oaxaca every July, this Los Angeles restaurant has become something of an institution. It was deemed an American Classic by the James Beard Foundation in 2015 and sells rojo, coloradito and negro mole by the jar. In the restaurant, diners can choose between six moles, or even order a family-style tasting platter of four moles (including estofado) served with shredded chicken, rice and a 15-inch tortilla. 3014 W Olympic Blvd., ilovemole.com

Houston

Xochi

Chef and restaurateur Hugo Ortega offer more than a dozen moles at his Oaxacan restaurant, Xochi. Along with traditional preparations like a yellow mole served with wild mushroom, and chichilo mole made with chilhuacle chillies, Mr Ortega prepares some uncommon variants, like a mole made with roasted chicatana ants. Occasionally he’ll create a new mole, like a recent one made with mulato peppers and homegrown figs, served with grilled Texas quail. 1777 Walker St., Houston, xochihouston.com

New York

Claro

Before opening Claro in Brooklyn in 2017, TJ Steele spent about half the year at his house in Oaxaca. Now that his restaurant has become a hit, even earning a Michelin star, Mr Steele’s time in Oaxaca has diminished, even if his commitment to their food hasn’t. Red and black moles are always on the menu—the red served with braised pork cheek and the black with a meltingly tender short rib. Red mole also makes an appearance at dessert, on a chocolate cake. 284 3rd Ave., Brooklyn, clarobk.com

New York

Atla

In Manhattan’s NoHo neighbourhood, the more casual of Daniela Soto-Innes and Enrique Olvera’s two New York restaurants (Cosme is the other) always offers at least one mole on the menu—often a traditional black mole, and sometimes more rarely seen varieties. A recent treat was a white mole, made with (among other things) almonds, peanuts, pine nuts, golden raisins and habanero peppers, served over roasted cabbage and leeks. 372 Lafayette St., Manhattan, atlanyc.com

Chicago

Frontera Grill

Nobody has brought Mexican cooking to more Americans, with less compromise, than Rick Bayless. At his flagship restaurant Frontera Grill, the “tablecloth staining” mole mancha manteles, made with ancho chilly and pineapple, is served with grilled duck breast. Mole negro appears on Fridays, accompanied by 20-hour smoked beef brisket. 445 North Clark St., rickbayless.com

Credit: Matthew Kronsberg for The Wall Street Journal, 11 April 2019.