Avenida Ferrocarril ("Railroad Avenue") turns into a calle, Fourth Street. I realize I'm heading directly back toward the U.S. The road climbs to a black border fence. Beyond, halfway up the bare hills, a second fence plays backup. Then, in the last 100 yards of México, little Avenida Aquiles Serdán tees off to the right. I scan the row of low buildings and muffler shops. Ah. There, next to Radiadores, Mofles Tony, and in the deep shade of a ficus tree, the magic words appear.
"La Casa Del Mole."
I cross the road. This has to be where Herminia Amador created the original Casa. The restaurant has a traditional tile-roof frontage, cream walls, black metal-barred windows. The towering ficus makes it look small. You wonder how anyone ever finds it, hidden behind a black metal security door. And yet the inside tells you they have prospered -- and the clientele is obviously from all parts of town, and across the line too.
Tijuana's love affair with mole is said to have begun right here, 16 years ago. Herminia Amador dreamed of bringing the flavors of her native state of Puebla to Tijuana. That meant one thing: Mole Poblano. The place has done so well, it's spawned three other Casas Del Mole around town, including a new one out at Playas de Tijuana, near the beach. This original restaurant is used but confident, comfortable, a bright interior dressed to look like an old Mexican courtyard. It has a little jungle of flowers and ferns, a gurgling fountain, yellow stucco walls with brown highlights, a tile "roof" overhanging the open kitchen, arches decorated with false cherries on branches, red-tile floor, shiny brown leatherette booths, and piles of thick china plates stacked and ready for the customers they know are coming tonight.
Prisciliano Camacho Flores turns up with a menu. "Our founder, Herminia Amador -- unfortunately, she passed away last October -- she was from the state of Puebla. Mole 'poblano' means 'from Puebla.' That is our full name. 'La Casa del Mole Poblano.'"
They have plenty of choices, but really there is only one decision you have to make. What's going under your mole? Thigh or breast of chicken or three enchiladas?
I choose the breast of chicken, which comes after a tasty chicken soup (included in the reasonable price, as is a sweet tamal dessert). Somewhere under this beautiful-smelling browny-black gloop, a chicken's hiding. You chomp into your first bite. And -- is it that I know better what to look for? This mole tastes less sweet, more complex, nuttier, more pointed, deeper, and perhaps cruder. For sure, it fits the casera-style feel of the place. And, actually, I like it better. Oh, and on top, some ajonjolí -- sesame -- seeds provide a neat little counter-punch for your tastebuds. I guess if you think of the French, with their béarnaise, and the Italians, with their marinara, we're probably looking at Mexico's major sauce statement.
It turns out that they don't actually make the mole here. "We make it for all our restaurants at our Zona Rio restaurant," says Prisciliano. "One woman works full-time making moles."
I'm hooked now. A few days later, my friend Hank and I swing up Paseo de los Héroes in a libre taxi, past the massive statues of Cuauhtémoc, Lincoln, and Zaragoza, the Mexican general who defeated the French on Cinco de Mayo, 145 years ago. And right by Zaragoza we come across an eight-sided building with a small sign outside. It's La Casa Del Mole's flagship restaurant, light-years in atmosphere from their original place by the border. Customers sit in galleries around a massive volcanic rock-pile waterfall surrounded by lush plants and what look like real palm trees -- the trunks are real, the fronds are real, but the fronds have been cut from other trees and stuck in. On the walls, an artist has painted eight-foot-tall lilies and sunflowers. Even the tabletops have been painted with flower decorations. But the thing everybody notices is a giant ceramic yellow-brown olla -- pot, bowl -- next to the cashier. The thing's five feet across. They say it's a traditional container from Puebla for the making of mole. True mole, they say, should be made in ceramic. Making it in metal containers is bad for the stomach.
Don't ask me why, but I believe them. This time, I'm determined to try a different mole. After all, Alberto Mondragón had told me they had the six basic moles back at El Agáve in Old Town -- poblano (made with ancho chiles -- which are dried poblano chiles); rojo (red), with a tomatoey flavor; rosa de Taxco (a sweet mole made from beets, walnuts, pine nuts, and chipotle chile); coloradito, a cinnamony mix with banana, garlic, and chocolate; verde, a green Oaxacan sauce mainly colored and flavored by the tomatillo; and negro, a spicier, less sweet Oaxacan mole that sounds a bit like the poblano, with things like fried plantains, almonds, tortillas, chipotle, peanuts, and a bit of chocolate all ground into the mix.
Sigh. Not quite the same choice down here. Ricardo, the waiter, explains that, apart from poblano, they have two other moles today, verde and ranchero, both Oaxacan. He brings out half a dozen dollops on a plate so we can sample them. There's mole poblano, mole almendrado (it's a lot like mole poblano, topped with ground almonds), mole ranchero (brown red chile mole), and a tomatillo-based mole verde. The other two are regular salsas.
I order mole verde with pork chunks. Hank orders chicken breast poblano. And while we're waiting we hop up to the kitchen.
"Sure," says the manager, Margarita Martínez, when I ask if we can see where the mole is made. She leads us out through the kitchen to a building across a courtyard. Inside, Margarita Sanchez labors behind three three-foot-high cauldrons bubbling away on a stovetop. Her work tables are stacked with piles of nuts, beans, almonds, fruit, and chiles.