Mexican Mole: A Rich and Regional Traditional Sauce
I wish I could remember the first time I had mole. Even though the specific moment doesn’t stand out, I do know that I never looked at Mexican food the same once I had it.
Mole (pronounced mole-LAY) is a thick, rich sauce used in many regions of Mexico. Although generally its primary ingredient is dried chilies, the type of chile and the number of different chilies varies widely depending on its origin and the recipe. (Fun fact: in Mexico, chilies have different names depending on whether they’re fresh or dried). The sauce doesn’t stop there, however – most moles have at least a dozen ingredients; some types can have up to 30, including chocolate, tortillas or egg bread for thickener, raisins, nuts, and a host of spices.
If you order a mole plate in a Mexican restaurant, typically you’re asking for chicken or sometimes pork or beef, bathed in mole and accompanied by tortillas and often rice and beans. Don’t stop there, though – mole is also a delicious topper for enchiladas.
The states of Puebla and Oaxaca (wa HA ka) are famous for their moles – there are seven types in Oaxaca alone. Here in North Central Washington, the types of mole available depends on the region the Mexican restaurant specializes in, or where the owners or cooks come from. Due to the number of people from Michoacan who live in the area or come to work here, Michoacan moles are the easiest to find. Because family recipes vary so much, the flavors of each mole are slightly different, even when the type of mole is the same.
Michoacan red mole is typically more savory than other moles. Although it has a bit of heat that starts to burn at the back of the throat, it’s not meant to challenge your ability to eat and cry at the same time. However, if you’re sensitive to spice, ask for a sample first.
In contrast, Oaxacan mole poblano has at least a slightly sweeter taste. It typically includes dried fruit and a small amount of chocolate, one of the many ingredients that Oaxaca is famous for using. Typical spices to Oaxacan mole also include cinnamon, cloves and possibly garlic. However, don’t be fooled – you may get a bit of sweetness in your dish, but Oaxacan mole is by no means a dessert. Instead, you will experience the flavor profiles in layers. First you’ll taste the sweet, then the richness of the homemade chicken stock, then maybe a bit of heat at the end in the back of your throat.
Finding Great Mole in North Central Washington
If you’ve never tried mole, you’re in luck. There are several places in the area that serve moles worth trying, and different types to choose from to best fit your preferred flavor profile. All these restaurants make their own tortillas, one of the signs of a superior traditional Mexican restaurant.
136 Eastmont Ave, East Wenatchee
Open most days 11-8
The best Oaxacan mole hands down comes from La Fonda Oaxaqueña in East Wenatchee. As a matter of fact, they have three moles, all somewhat different: a poblano-style mole over enchiladas that explodes in your mouth with a richness of flavors, a clove mole served over beef, and a “chileajo” (garlic chile) mole over beef. The recipes come from the owner’s family, who is from a region in Oaxaca called San Juan Mixtepec. Her moles reflect her hometown roots.
522 S Wenatchee Ave., Wenatchee
Open Wednesday to Sunday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
There are several places to get good Michoacan style mole. Doña Juana’s on South Wenatchee Avenue has a mole plate with either succulent chunks of pork or chicken and her homemade tortillas. Her recipe comes from her mother. If you have room (you won’t, but maybe take some of your food to go to make room) try some of her sweet tamales. The strawberry is my favorite.
5647 Sunset Hwy, Cashmere
Open Wednesday to Monday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.
El Chavo in Cashmere has two mole options: a traditional red mole, and a green mole made with green chiles and radish leaves. Their red mole is less spicy than Doña Juana’s, although no less delicious. Their green mole is a great alternative for those who want a mole that’s less rich tasting, with a bit more sour (like the flavor of tomatillos, or arugula.)
609 N Wenatchee Ave., Wenatchee
Open daily from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. to 8 pm
Alma’s Kitchen in Wenatchee also has a Michoacan style red mole served over enchiladas. Theirs is less rich than the others, with a more uniform flavor. It’s a bit lighter if you’re not sure you can take on the full richness of the moles at some of these other places.