Who doesn't love mole; a dish much like a favorite song, embodying both cozy familiarity and constant surprise. Grub Street L.A. chowed down one recent morning in the Hawthorne backyard of Dona Socorro, one of the founders of La Feria de Mole, the mole festival that returns this Sunday to Olvera Street for the fourth consecutive year. The theme of this year's battle will be "Puebla versus Oaxaca," continuing a friendly, if drummed-up rivalry between the two Mexican states famous for their takes. The event, designed as a pre-tasting of both Oaxacan and Poblano moles, was more like the weigh-off in a boxing bout. With culinary representatives from both states in attendance, an amicable war of words began, with both sides claiming the superior mole. So, who do we have our money on?
We had the good fortune to be wedged between the city's go-to experts on Mexican cuisine, bloggers Javier "The Glutster" Cabral and Street Gourmet L.A.'s Bill Esparza (with a side of Los Angelicious Times), two dudes that will quickly turn everything a gringo thinks he knows about Mexican food in L.A. upside down. Esparza clarified that Oaxaca and Puebla are hardly the only states that should be acknowledged for excellent renditions and recipes within Mexico's mole scene, but they are certainly the two who take the lion's share of attention, often due to the importance U.S. chefs who make Mexican food place on the two.
To be fair, Alfredo Gómez, the gentleman representing mole poblano, didn't try to stoke the rivalry. When explaining the preparation of his region's recipes, he was interrupted by Gabriel Cruz, who politely interjected his feelings about the deep dark moles of Oaxaca being preferable. One major point both gentleman seemed to touch on was that the ingredients in mole poblano are first heated separately to coax out their flavors, before being fused together, while our Oaxacan rep stressed that only by cooking all the ingredients together at once could the greatest flavor be attained. For us, this huge difference in preparation would be an important point, indeed.
Meanwhile, Dona Soccoro, also repping Puebla, was patiently and individually cooking each ingredient for her mole poblano from a table scattered with chocolate, chiles, raisins, cinnamon, nuts, and even animal cookies, among the other edible odds and ends that form the complex flavor of her mole. Preparing mole is not 15-minute pre-dinner escape for the wanna-be home cook, but rather a labor of love, typically made for celebrations, with a staggering number of ingredients that can take hours to multiple days to prepare, depending on the number of guests one is feeding it to.
So who do we have our money on this weekend? While there will be at least thirteen restaurants serving a range of different moles, as well as numerous other vendors selling knick-knacks and snacks, the big battle will pit Oaxaca against Puebla. Of the two examples we tasted at Dona Soccoro's house, we have to put our bets on Puebla. The mole poblano, bearing a slight reddish hue, was vastly more complex and structured, with a range of different flavors, spices, and tastes poking through the mass. Here a warm chocolatey overtone, there a tart kick of fruit, here a prick of heat, there that incredible piquant taste that always makes us think of the color purple for some reason.
The black, BLACK Oaxacan mole, while entrancing enough that we jumped on seconds, was much more of a one-note experience, thudding with a scorched explosion that quickly dissipated, without the nuances of the mole repping Puebla. We could only think at this point of the argument centered on cooking ingredients separately or together as one fleshed out the flavors in several of them, while the other did not.
Still, these were just two examples, making us hunger for the variations that await this Sunday. Esparza, for his part, spoke fondly of the fun to be had at Feria de Moles, even as he encouraged the assembled diners to head to Gish Bac, for what he fingered as the city's very best Oaxacan mole.