By Nicole Danna
By Sara Ventiera
By Candace West
By Emily Dabau
By Doug Fairall
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By Laine Doss
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Read anything about Mexican mole (pronounced MOLE-ay), a sauce so contrarian few have been able to define it, and you'll probably run across at least two origin stories. One involves a 17th-century nun named Sor Andrea de la Asunción. Panicked about how to feed a visiting archbishop, the good sister threw every ingredient in her convent kitchen into a cast iron pot. The result must have smelled and tasted witchy. I imagine her whispering a desperate prayer over her boiling brew. The archbishop was charmed.
Or an alternate tale: Fray Pascual, a monk, was putting up spices for the monastery's kitchen when he left a tray of ground powders near an open window. A sudden breeze wafted the mixture into a casserole bubbling on the stove, and that night at dinner the other monks oooohed and ahhhed, patted their bellies, and afterward slept the sleep of the righteous.
In either case, the Lord smiled on mole, evidently unconcerned with its potentially aphrodisiacal effects. A longer history of this fabled food would take you back to the Aztecs, who discovered the powerful magic wrought from a handful of cocoa beans ground together with chilies. If that isn't a recipe for love I don't know what is. If you've read Laura Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate you'll understand what a lather a girl can get into while toasting anchos and almonds for a recipe handed down through generations. Today, the state of Oaxaca boasts seven classic mole recipes, the city of Puebla has as many, and Veracruz hoards the secrets of its own emerald-colored mole verde. Mole, with its dozens of ingredients and 40 or 50 painstaking steps, can take days to prepare; it's not so much a meal as a test of faith or an act of uncommon generosity. This is a food that tastes all the better seasoned with sweat and tears. Cook a mole and the smell lingers in your hair, on your skin and clothes, for days.
I like chef Zarela Martínez's no-nonsense definition of mole: She says it's any puréed main dish that uses fresh or dried chilies along with a bunch of other vegetal matter, plus a thickener. Mexi-expert Rick Bayless would add that the purée must be cooked (guacamole, despite its name, doesn't qualify). A mole might include what any good Mexican housewife would have within arm's reach of her stove: anchos, poblanos, pasillas, serranos, pumpkin seeds, sesame, peanuts, grated avocado pit or avocado leaves, garlic, cinnamon, cloves, onion, stale bread, anise, prunes, sugar, broken tortillas, raisins, walnuts, cacao butter, oregano, jalapenos, tomatillos, apricots, fennel, tomatoes, chipotle, plantains, peppercorns, thyme, cracker crumbs, pine nuts, masa, coconut milk, wine, and, if you feel the spirit, chocolate. You and me and the devil makes three... the Siren mole burbles from the depths of its pot, beckoning.
Martínez reminds us, too, that "the sauce is the dish." Traditionally, you don't so much spoon mole over a turkey breast or a chicken thigh as you dine on a plate of sauce spiked with a couple of pieces of meat. Mole is thick, like a stew, and frighteningly potent.
The mole that chef Lamberto Valdez ladles over the chicken crepes he serves at El Chamol breaks from all these traditions, but then Valdez is a Mexican-born, French-schooled, former Ritz-Carlton executive chef, and he's attempting to do something rather poetic. Valdez, it seems, has an idea that he'll use classic Mexican ingredients — cactus paddles and huitlacoche among the most exotic — and pair them in interesting ways with seafood and European-accented characters such as puff pastry or risotto. Voilé! you might say: A new fusion is born.
Sometimes Valdez's fancies work, sometimes they don't. The crepes ($13.95) wrapped around toothsome chunks of chicken, are supple and lacy as they should be, but the accompanying mole, thinned with chardonnay, and pooled next to the pancake, has none of the black magic you'd expect from such a complicated sauce; the only note that registers is cinnamon. You wonder how a mole could possibly taste underseasoned.
Although I've found the food at Chamol uneven, ranging from mouthwatering to bland, I like this little restaurant quite a bit. That goes to show how far the mood and spirit of a place can make up for any lapses in culinary execution. The setting, in suburban Lake Worth, is exceedingly pleasant, two long rooms filled with pinks and blues and yellows. A silly mural of idyllic Mexican farmers, villagers, and a mariachi band stretches the length of two walls — a local artist's stream-of-cliché. Solid blond tables are set with hand-painted Mexican plates (removed when service begins), and the waiters know enough to unfold your napkin and place it in your lap, showing an attentiveness to detail that probably reflects Valdez's years of work in fine resort hotels. On weekends, Chamol is jammed and noisy with regular customers celebrating birthdays and engagements, with nothing but cheap margaritas to buffer the sound reverberating off tile floors; but on weeknights the pace is leisurely and the kitchen less rushed. Busy or sedate, though, the staff here is lovely — a little shy, maybe, but well coordinated in the pacing of courses and drinks, offering to refill your basket of tortilla chips and the lava-stone molcajete of homemade tomato salsa, chopped tomato seeded with bits of cilantro and a sucker-punch of jalapeno, as many times as you can stand. The free salsa is excellent, and so is guacamole dip ($6.95), fatty Hass avocados layered onto warm tortilla chips and melted cheese, then topped with sour cream. Tortilla soup ($3.95), sprinkled with tortilla confetti the red, white, and green of a Mexican flag, grew on me as I ate; what seems dull on first bite gradually spreads warmth and spice into your whole being, a liquid comfort.
Shrimp with corn and mushrooms is served over a grilled cactus paddle ($11.95) with salsa made from roasted tomatillos and tomatoes — a stellar, unusual dish. It's listed under appetizers but easily serves two or as a main course. The nopale has an odd texture, just slightly slippery, like okra, fleshy and tart — it works beautifully with the clean salty brine of shrimp and smoky essences imparted from grilling and roasting. Another huge appetizer, roasted poblano stuffed with potato, goat cheese, and lobster ($13.95) didn't come off as well — too much potato, for one thing. Valdez uses a lot of lobster on this menu, and I think it's a mistake — there's no way the shellfish could be cooked to order, and it loses flavor and texture. Anyway, it's wasted loaded into ravioli with huitlacoche, a powdery corn smut, or stuffed into a quesadilla ($14.95) among a bunch of competing flavors.
This nice chef cares enough to visit every table at his suburban Lake Worth restaurant at least once per night (I watched him personally counsel one couple at length, a pregnant wife with her picky, picky husband). If you're not into Frenchican fare, he's got a solid lineup of Tex-Mex or Mex-Mex enchiladas and fajitas and burritos. The beef fajitas ($9.95), emitting more steam than a Cancun honeymoon suite, were terrific, and the tortillas came warm in a basket covered with a napkin — the real thing, as good as any I've had in Mexico. Spoon a little pico de gallo and sour cream, roll your chunks of meat up with a few strips of grilled pepper and onion, and you are one happy glutton. Long simmered, redolent beans and yellow rice are served in tiny cast iron pots with wooden spoons. And if the marinated beef in an asada grill ($16.95) was a little tough, the pastry enfolding a creamy chicken and cheese pie (a special, $22.50) was just as tender.
Any of these dishes are very easy to swallow with margaritas, of course (there's always a daily special, such as frozen mango), or shots of tequila from a menu expansive enough to soothe any anxiety one might feel about a lobster quesadilla seasoned with corn smut ($14.95). Margaritas are made with the traditional lime and triple sec, or less traditionally with pineapple, agave, blue curaçao, or even grape juice, but they're served in handsome blown-glass stemware, and at around $4 each, you can afford to drink your weight in them. As for tequila, there's Milagro, Herradura, El Jimador, Casa Noble, reposados, anejos, and blancos — enough of the hard stuff to keep you busy along with Mexican and American beers including Modelo and Tecate.