Big Mole in Little Oaxaca
Somebody recently asked me if I knew a place with a killer mole in La Phoenikera; you know, the kind that pleasures your tongue as if it were a one night stand. I couldn’t make a suggestion, luckily enlightenment is one Google search away. I laser focused on the “La 15 y Salsas” result which was located by North Mountain Park. I had to try it.
Over my years in La Phoenikera I’ve tried good moles and a few I had to chase down with a brewster. A lot of places are inconsistent and others a poor excuse compared to what I stuffed my face with at La 15. All I have to say is that I’m a new born molero, my mole cherry was appropriately popped.
If you’re a purist like Elizabeth Hernández, owner of my now go-to place for mole, it’s almost sacrilegious to ask for a chicken tlayuda, as they’re only made with tasajo, cecina or chorizo. Pinto beans are a no-no in Oaxacan cuisine, black beans are predominant and their memelitas are not to be fried.
Her apparent sassiness about her food is confusing because when it comes to the restaurant industry, we’re programmed to believe that as customers we can alter recipes or demand changes because “the client is always right.” It’s pretty clear though, that she’s not doing it to offend, but to educate and represent the true Oaxacan culinary tradition.
Let’s back it up a bit…Wat the hell’s a tlayuda?
My cultural filter at first said a Mexican pizza, right? It’s the worse comparison, but it’s the first thing that came to mind. After the first bite I wanted to smack myself in the head for comparing the two. Lemme illustrate: a big corn tortilla cooked on a comal is topped with refried black beans, shredded Oaxaca cheese, a bed of lettuce, tomatoes, avocado, tasajo, cecina or chorizo. It’s basically all your food groups in one huge meal. If you add a sampler plate with memelitas, empanadas, molotes, flautitas, and a pitcher of agua de chilacayote to this feast, you’re one step closer to spiritual perfection.
But wait, didn’t this start with mole? Let’s get back to that.
I learned by playing
Elizabeth tells me that her recipes come from her family and remembers making tortillas with her mom and grandma, or when they used to make the memelitas with refried black beans and cheese. To learn how to cook her grandma bought her a mini comal and metate at the market. “I learned by playing, watching my grandma, helping my mom, going to markets and talking to the vendors about the different type of chiles and uses for the different ingredients,” Elizabeth says.
The never-ending mother/daughter-in-law war, helped her broaden her culinary repertoire. That rivalry made her seek family members for recipes, ask about processes and secret ingredients. “In reality there are no secret ingredients, the secret is how much love you put into making the food.” Her recipes are so good that her now ex-husband asks for them so his mom can cook’em.
Making mole is a laborious job (no, we won’t be giving her recipe). Its execution requires several intrinsic steps so that all the flavors are balanced. “You have to clean the chiles, take out the veins and seeds, toast the chiles, toast some of the seeds but not burn them, broil some ingredients, fry, then you mill, and mix.” Simple enough…not!
Apparently, there are many kinds of mole, I thought it was going to be chill, get some molito action and that was it, but I ended up with a bacchanal of tlayudas, memelitas, flautas, enmoladas and four types of mole.
Heeeerrrrrre comes mole!
Red, yellow and green to go with my Bolivian instinct and of course mole negro, since Elizabeth got me all worked up about it. There are plenty of mole variants in Mexico, just choose a state. Only in Oaxaca there’s eight. (negro, verde, rojo, amarillo, coloradito, estofado, pipian y chichilo).
The difference between the flavors is abysmal though unified by something. Or maybe I was high on mol-e. The green mole with pork is a subtle verdant paradise; the red one with chickin’ has awesome thick sauce, but with less toasty accents than mole negro; yella was hella good! it had beef and it reminded me a lot of barbacoa but with tons of other layers and subtleties (and veggies!!!). Black mole was king tho, it made my neurons high-five.
Cool, but could we get some background?
Elizabeth took over La 15 in 2012 and last year she brought in Carlos Alcántara as partner, a dude from Bahías de Huatulco in Oaxaca. The idea came because of the need for Oaxacan products in the area and also as a way to keep connected to their roots.
“When we moved to Phoenix I missed a lot of things from back home, my chile de agua, my quesillo, a lot of ingredients that are essential to our food”.
Elizabeth is from Valles Centrales, specifically from Heroica Villa de San Antonino Castillo Velasco, Ocotlán, Oaxaca, México. She left a laundry and glassware business and migrated to the U.S. when her husband was offered a job in 2005.
Working for somebody else wasn’t her thing and in 2012 she launched La 15 with just a few things on the menu. The first year was a dread, zero profit and she had it hard: rescuing traditional cooking without modifying the original recipe comes at a cost and in the beginning, guests wanted to change the dishes. According to Elizabeth, “some Oaxacan restaurants have changed their recipes trying to please everyone, here we don’t do that, that’s what makes us different.”
Her confidence in the recipes has shown results, La 15 is booming and people don’t ask for mutant versions of her food anymore.
Carlos, her business partner, is quick and witty, he’s unbelievably humble and gives all the credit to her cooking. His personality is perfect for his role in the business: take care of guests, deal with providers and help prep the food… though his main thang is munching on it. “Oh yeah! That’s what I’m good at,” says Carlos while everybody at the table laughs.
La 15 sits in the perfect location for a lot of Oaxacans that live in the area. It’s basically Little Oaxaca in La Phoenikera, a place where at least for a little while, people can close their eyes and taste their culture, and where outsiders can learn to appreciate it.
Wait, did I say the mole was bomb digs?