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Mole Mania

Peppers, spices, Mexican chocolate, and a few hours of simmering yield a classic dish.

By AMELIA LEVIN

When a 17th century Mexican bishop unexpectedly dropped in at a convent in Puebla, the nuns did not know what to do. What should they cook? So into a giant pot they threw what they had on hand--some peppers, spices, even some Mexican chocolate, and after a few hours of simmering, the today's popular mole sauce was born.

That is the legend of mole poblano, a semi-sweet, earthy gravy of sorts, commonly ladled over enchiladas, turkey or chicken at Mexican restaurants in the native land and around the world.

Maria Concannon, owner of Don Juan Restaurante in Elmwood Park says there isn't any one way to make the sauce, which takes several hours to prepare. Rather, she relies on sight, smell and taste to make sure the sweet and tangy "paste" is just right.

"An awful lot of things [go into the pot]," Concannon says, including mild peppers like anchos and mulatos, or hotter pasilla peppers, as well as tomatoes, garlic, onion, sesame seeds, spices like cloves and cinnamon, a ripe banana for good measure,

and, of course, Mexican chocolate.

Day-old bread or tortillas and crushed peanuts, almonds and raisins add body and consistency to mole. Many people love the sauce, while others must acquire a taste for it due to its bittersweet undertones.

But mole isn't all about the chocolate, as many American patrons believe, Concannon says, and other chefs agree. Rather, chocolate is used sparingly and as a spice to balance the many other ingredients in the sauce, says Brian Enyart, managing chef at Frontera Grill and Topolobampo in River North.

In fact, many moles are made without chocolate, making the sauce known more for its eclectic chili, fruit and thickening elements like nuts and seeds, Enyart says.

In Mexico, many regions have their own signature moles. Whereas the mole poblano originated in Puebla, the Oaxaca valley has seven moles, including two red ones, mole Colorado and mole Coloradito, which rely heavily on ancho chilies for color and heat. Oaxaca also has a black mole, mole negro, known as the "King of Moles" because of its complexity; a simpler chichilio mole; a green mole, mole verde, with romaine lettuce and other vegetables; a sweeter, yellow mole, mole amarillo, which includes ground corn; and a manchamanteles mole that uses pineapples or other fruits as a sweetener rather than chocolate.

Just as moles vary in taste across Puebla and Oaxaca, Mexico, here in Chicago, you'll find they do, too. Many of the city's restaurants have their own take on the sauce. Here's where to try them.

?Salpic?n! 1252 N. Wells, 312-988-7811
Your day or night will be brightened at this lively, upscale Mexican restaurant with colorful art-lined walls and white linen tablecloths. Several mole sauces are offered. Chef Priscila Satkoff makes a delicious double cut pork chop with a rustic, earthy Oaxacan ancho chili, red mole sauce that has more heat than most, but the small chunks of sweet potatoes and slices of grilled plantain and pineapple lining the plate cool your palate. Or opt for the free-range, grilled chicken breasts topped with the sweeter, classic mole poblano. Entr?es are generously portioned and average around $20. Reservations are recommended, especially on weekends.

Don Juan Restaurante
6730 N. Northwest Hwy., 773-775-6438
At this 21-year-old, family owned restaurant, Concannon's mole has a sweeter taste, thanks to the abuelita chocolate she uses in small doses. Diners looking for a taste can order the special mole con pollo, a grilled breast of chicken set atop mashed potatoes and a generous helping of mole poblano. Or go for the classic enchiladas in mole poblano, filled with pumpkin, cheese, ground beef or chicken. Take a seat in the casual main dining room with a friendly, neighborhood crowd or turn it up a notch and head to the back dining room with white linen tablecloths and a special menu (Patricio's menu) created by Concannon's son, former executive chef of the restaurant. Entr?es run anywhere from $7 to $27, so there's something for everyone.

de cero
814 W. Randolph, 312-455-8114
Choose among 15 different types of tacos a la carte at this modern yet cozy West Loop hotspot, including, of course, the shredded chicken mole taco with a drizzle of cream. Or opt for the larger entr?e of grilled chicken with mole poblano, basmati rice and saut?ed greens. Here, the mole poblano is lighter, smokier and spicier than its usual sweeter counterpart, offering a unique kick to everyday chicken. A la carte tacos run average $3 to $4, while entrees run from $9 to $16.

Frontera Grill and Topolobampo
445 N. Clark, 312-661-1434
At this popular mainstay, Enyart and Executive Chef and owner Rick Bayless know how to serve up killer Puebla and Oaxacan moles with perfect balances of tang, spice and texture. A noticeable garlic flavor adds sweetness, interplaying with the nuttiness of the sauce's thickening agents. The menu changes month-to-month, but look for grilled duck breasts in mole poblano, fresh fish served with Oaxacan yellow mole and pork chops in Oaxacan manchamanteles mole. A mainstay on the Frontera menu is the Enchilades de Mole Rojo, homemade tortillas filled with chicken and doused with an Oaxacan red mole sauce.

Caf? El Tapatio
3400 N. Ashland Av., 773-327-5475
This festive, bright neighborhood joint offers the very traditional enchiladas in mole poblano with chicken, cheese or for a unique taste, fried plantains. Or go for the larger sized option of two pieces of white or dark meat chicken smothered in the sauce. Here the mole poblano is richer and heartier with powerful cinnamon and chocolate under-tones. Entr?e prices are inexpensive, hovering around $8. On weekends, tables fill quickly, but friendly hosts let you take a seat at their sister bar/restaurant, La Taberna Tapatia, across the street, and call you when ready.

Adobo Grill
1610 N. Wells, 312-266-7999
or 2005 W. Division, 773-252-9990
Chef Freddy Sanchez swears by his Lomito en Mole Negro Oaxaque?o, a juicy, grilled pork tenderloin in an Oaxacan black mole with saut?ed garlic spinach. Varying types of Oxacan chilies are roasted to a crisp, which gives the dish its color and smoky, slightly bitter taste. For a lighter option, try the Enchiladas en Mole Verde, roasted butternut squash and wild mushroom enchiladas in a refreshing green mole, topped with cotija cheese, red onion and sour cream. Go vegetarian with the veggie platter that includes a crispy lentil cake, corn flan and plantain pico de gallo doused in more green mole. Enchiladas en Mole Rojo feature a spicy red mole alongside chicken- and-cheese filled, homemade tortillas. The trendy eatery is packed on weekend nights so make reservations or cozy up at the bar for straight-up margaritas while waiting. Entr?es run the gamut from $14 to $24.

La Bonita Ixcapuzalco
2165 N. Western Ave., 773-486-7340
Bucktown locals flock to this quaint, yet vibrant, authentic Mexican restaurant with a bright yellow and green exterior and white tablecloths. The spot is known for its fiery mole sauces and features a different Oaxacan mole each day except on Tuesdays, when the restaurant closes. Look for chicken, lamb or duck options with red moles on Saturday and Sundays, yellow, or amarillo, mole on Mondays, manchamanteles mole on Wednesdays, green or verde mole on Thursdays and black mole on Friday. Affordable entr?es run between $8 and $15.

Tarascas International
2585 N. Clark, 773-549-2595
At this candle-lit, intimate Mexican eatery, with some Caribbean influences, a favorite on the eclectic menu is the carne asada, a succulent, grilled skirt steak served alongside a chicken enchilada smothered in a chocolate-y mole sauce. Sounds rich, but their mole has just the right amount of tang to offset the buttery flavors of the steak. Or skip the steak and just order the mole enchiladas with chicken, beef, cheese, chorizo or vegetables. Wash it all down with a huge goblet of their very potent, not-too-sweet house margarita. Classic Mexican favorites are inexpensive under $10 while the more upscale entr?es run up to $17.

Published: February 01, 2006
Issue: Winter 2006