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In the Kitchen

Mole Master

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The tiny 50-square-foot kitchen at Ixcapuzalco hardly seems adequate for the task of preparing the complex moles that are the restaurant's specialty. But every morning the herbs and spices are assembled and the requisite seeds and chilies toasted. As the ingredients simmer, the aroma drifts into every corner of the restaurant. It's a heady perfume, a marvelous amalgam of beautifully balanced flavors that are as difficult to pin down as the definition of mole itself.

"Moles are so complex," Generoso Bahena, the Mexican-born chef/owner of both Ixcapuzalco and Chilpancingo, begins. He pauses. "On the other hand, there are also some relatively simple moles."

Moles usually begin with a puree of dried chilies and other seasonings, thickened with ground nuts and seeds, tortillas, masa (cornmeal), or bread. The mixture is slow cooked until it forms a paste, and then high-moisture ingredients like tomatoes, onions, or stock are added. Within this basic framework a great deal of diversity exists, and that's what Bahena finds so intriguing.

The 36-year-old chef's interest in mole goes back to his childhood. Growing up on the family ranch in the state of Guerrero, on Mexico's Pacific coast, he began helping his grandmother prepare moles for holidays and other celebrations as a young child. Fresh vegetables and fruit from the ranch's gardens and orchards fueled Bahena's imagination, as did the abundance of fresh meat and dairy products.

He came to Chicago 20 years ago to mend a broken heart, and wound up taking a job washing pots and pans in a restaurant on 18th Street when his money ran out.

"One day the cook came in late, and I asked if I could help him," Bahena remembers. "I spent the rest of the day peeling potatoes, so many that my fingers ached the next day. But it was all worth it, because I moved out of dishwashing and into cooking."

After two years of culinary school at Joliet Junior College and another two at Saint Augustine, Bahena got a job working for Rick Bayless in the Frontera Grill/Topolobampo kitchen. He opened Ixcapuzalco in spring 1999 and Chilpancingo in September 2000. The first focuses on food from the Mexican state of Oaxaca, the second on regional fare from all over Mexico.

Bahena feels the best way to learn about moles is to sample them, and nowhere in Chicago is there a better place to do that than Ixcapuzalco. The restaurant does all seven classic moles of Oaxaca, featuring a different one each night. Amarillo ("yellow"), coloradito ("reddish"), negro ("black"), rojo ("red"), verde ("green"), chichilo (dark, but less rich than mole negro), and manchamantel (fruit based) are included in the roll call.

Moles from other parts of Mexico generally fall into one of the same seven categories. The dark red mole rojo served at Ixcapuzalco on Saturdays, for example, is a variation on mole poblano, the justly famous version from Puebla, a state adjacent to both Oaxaca and Bahena's native Guerrero. The indigenous Indian culture is especially strong in both Guerrero and Oaxaca, so it's not surprising that mole, which predates the arrival of the Spanish in 1519, plays such a prominent role in these areas. The Aztecs referred to a stew or sauce as a "molli," and when the Spanish arrived they gave the word their own twist. For Bahena, mole's etymology makes it easier to define.

"A mole," he explains, "is both a stew and a sauce, and at the same time it's totally unique. In a stew, the ingredients are all cooked together. But that's not always the case with a mole. Cooked meats and vegetables are often added after the mole has finished cooking." You might compare mole with Italian marinara, another sauce with its own distinct identity. Pair it with pasta, chicken, or seafood, and it's still a marinara. The sauce defines the dish, just as mole does.

Ixcapuzalco's mole rojo is flavorful and well spiced rather than hot, as are virtually all of Bahena's dishes. He is quick to dispel the widely held belief that all moles are made with chocolate, and are therefore sweet. "Some moles--including mole poblano--are made with chocolate," he says. "But you don't add sugar to a mole, and they aren't sweet. In this case, the chocolate gives the dish added depth and complexity."

When Bahena talks about mole, he emphasizes its sophistication and delicacy, qualities not found in the tacos and burritos most people think of as Mexican food. "What you need to understand," he says, "is that a mole is a special-occasion dish. You can't make it at the last minute like you would a salsa.

"In the end, a mole is a mole because that's what tradition says it is. There are no rules, only passion."

Ixcapuzalco is at 2919 N. Milwaukee, 773-486-7340. Chilpancingo is at 358 W. Ontario, 312-266-9525.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.

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