Avenida Sanchez Taboada #10813, Baja
Paseo de los Héroes #10501, Baja
Sammy Sosa leans over confidentially. "It was a special treat for the king. For the Aztec king. Ordinary people couldn't eat it."
I look at the black morass on my plate. I almost expect him to take it back and say, "Sorry, you don't qualify."
Instead, he says, "Buen provecho."
"Is this the real thing?" I ask.
"The real thing," Sammy says.
Great, because that's what I've been searching for. Serious mole. That's "molay," the sauce, not the black-eyed burrower working beneath suburban folks' rose gardens.
I've found this ancient Aztec food here at La Espadaña ("the bell wall"), in Tijuana's Rio district: mole poblano, the most famous of them all, with chicken enchiladas. Hey, near enough to September 16. Mexican Independence Day. Happy birthday, Mexico!
Sammy's the real thing too. That is, his name really is Sammy Sosa. Okay, he never whacked balls for the Chicago Cubs. But he's been a waiter here at La Espadaña so long, you know he knows how to whack a mole together.
Searching for the perfect mole is like searching for the perfect chocolate chip cookie. Mole's an icon in its own right, the way curries are to Indian cooking, or olive oil to the Mediterraneans: it's one of those definers of culture, and an open telephone line back to the Aztecs. Of course, this mole is a southern-central Mexican thing, a lush, oozing accompaniment to chicken or turkey or pork, lifted from jungle kingdoms dripping with plantains and chocolate trees and mangos and other rich sauces. It's not like the tart, crackling-hot rattlesnake 'n' scorpion dishes of Sonora and Baja. You don't hear a lot about mole up here in the desert north.
"Mole" comes from the Náhuatl word milli or molli, which means "sauce" or "concoction." But people talk about it in almost mystical overtones. 'Specially mole poblano. It seems to be not just the best known but the Cadillac of moles. To many, even up here in Tijuana, mole poblano over turkey (mole de guajolote) is the national dish, eaten, since Spanish times anyway, at Christmas.
"It's the soul of Mexican sauces," Alberto Mondragón, the manager of El Agáve restaurant up in Old Town told me the other day. "It's sweet, spicy, and rich. Drink plenty of water with it. Don't eat it early or late. It's richer than other sauces. You need time to digest it."
He takes the tradition seriously. "Mole is for Mexican cuisine what baroque art is for architects," Mondragón writes on his menu. I'd love to eat at El Agáve, but it's a little on the "up" side for me.
So here I am, sitting at La Espadaña, down on Sánchez Taboada Avenue in the Rio district. It's about six in the evening. Plenty of time to digest. Nice place, too. La Espadaña is where local government officials meet, business people, families, the middle class. It's like a bright ranch house inside, with a low-sloped rafter roof, a campestre (a bell tower, with ropes you can pull when you have something to celebrate), orange walls, arched alcoves for intimate eating, lots of interesting Talavera pottery, and against the far, luminous-blue wall, chefs flipping steaks on flaming grills.
So, okay, Sammy, here goes. Big moment. I haul a chunk of enchilada up through the black lagoon of my mole poblano. Send it down the hatch. Wow. Is this what Moctezuma tasted? Rico. My first thought is: distant echo of molasses. Mole. Mol-asses -- coincidence?
Of course, this mole is way richer. It's multilayered, and the more you taste it, the more interesting it gets. That sweet, slightly tarry flavor mixed with...hell, I don't know, but I'd guess banana? Chocolate, for sure, and there's something nutty, chile-hot...
Whatever, it does make the enchiladas delicious. If I was a wine-critic type, I'd say this mole delivers swoony vividness that envelops your taste buds like thunderclouds -- hey, that's good! Of course, you definitely need your iced tea. The rice and frijoles help too.
From the simplified recipes I've seen, this mole will have, at the least, a bunch of chiles, and interesting things like almonds, torn-up corn tortillas, raisins, cloves, cinnamon, and a certain amount of bitter chocolate.
"How much chocolate is in this mole?" I ask Sammy.
"The chef's over there," Sammy says. "You could ask him."
So I do. Carlos Ramírez stands at the open grill station. He's a big man. Been chef here 15 years. "I put in 20 different spices," he says. "I fry them up together. It's in the combination of chiles, nuts, chocolate. You have chile negro, chile pasilla, chile California (the dried red Anaheim chile), creamed peanuts, plantain, piloncillo..." He says piloncillos are cones of solid, raw brown sugar with -- aha! -- a molasses flavor, even though the molasses (the first stage of the process that converts cane to sugar) has mostly been refined out of it.
This is just the beginning. He blends it all with chicken broth, stirs, drains, tastes, seasons. I'm sure he's not going to tell me his secrets. So I don't get how much chocolate, or cacao, is in there. "My recipe is traditional" is what he says.
"No, no, no," says my friend Victor a few days later. "La Espadaña's fine, but the best mole in Tijuana is at Herminia Amador's."
So here is your intrepid correspondent, back tramping eastward alongside a dusty railroad track a few hundred yards south and east of the San Ysidro border crossing. It's around five in the afternoon. Behind me, in the shade of the old, unused Tijuana railroad-station platform, men gather at about this time of day to decide whether to try to make it across the line from here after dark. This is Colonia Libertad. So close to the border, yet couldn't be more Mexican. Politicians' banners bleach in the sun and get hazy in the dust. Tiny taco stands pop up in little gardens. Sidewalk comes and goes. Traffic is a bit crazy but kindly to the many walkers, like me.