Oaxacan mole negro isn’t a dish made in an afternoon. With a laundry list of some 30 ingredients — most of which require separate roasting or blanching or toasting — it’s a labor of love passed down through generations of Oaxacan women.
Like any great regional recipe,s this inky, chocolate and cinnamon-infused chile sauce has quirks peculiar to each of its creators, but shares a common heritage and foundational ingredients. Ancho and guajillos chiles, Mexican chocolate and cinnamon, stale bread, tomatillos, plantain, oregano, raisins, pumpkin and sesame seeds, garlic, onions, cloves, avocado leaves and lard are traditional. But improvisation and secret ingredients, of course, give the mole life: Sweet bread or animal crackers instead of stale bread, a ripe banana instead of the plantain, the addition of corn tortillas. Not surprisingly, it’s a rare find at local taquerias despite the preponderance of great Oaxacan cooks in Sonoma County. Why? This is labor-intensive celebration food that’s more easily served from a can than slaved over for days. And that’s what makes Healdsburg’s Agave Mexican Restaurant such a find.
Each day, owner Octavio Diaz’s mother is in the kitchen making mole negro by hand with Oaxacan ingredients he brings from their homeland several times a year. Chocolate. Spices. Chiles. “Every day is a celebration,” says Octavio.
The hotel and restaurant management graduate and chef has spent much of his life in the United States, working his way up the food ladder. His goal: To bring the flavors of his native homeland to his new homeland.
At Agave, the mole (pronounced mo-lay) negro is poured over a chicken breast, puddles and spreads across the plate like a chocolate mudslide. It’s exotic, rich, earthy, and unmistakable. The absence of a single ingredient will alter it entirely and you can clearly taste the passion behind it. (Frankly, it’s hard not to think of Laura Esquivel’s sensuous Like Water for Chocolate, when eating it).
Along with mole negro, Diaz and his family serve up a number of other traditional dishes: Molotes (fried masa stuffed with potato, chorizo and herbs); tamale de mole (a homemade masa tamale stuffed with shredded chicken and steamed in a banana leaf); Chiles Rellenos (a green chili stuffed with chicken and plump raisins and fried) and Tlayuda, a giant corn tostada from Mexico that’s topped with beans, cabbage, queso fresco and meat, kind of like a Mexican pizza. Just want simple taqueria fare? The restaurant also serves fajitas, enchiladas, carnets, flautas, burritos and the usual suspects with aplomb.
But really, wouldn’t you rather celebrate?
Rick Bayless’ is legendary for his mole.
Agave Fresh Mexican, 1063 Vine St., Healdsburg, 433-2411.
Mole negro is just one of Oaxaca’s legendary “Seven Moles. Want to learn more? Diary of a Foodie/Gourmet has an incredible video about the process here, along with a recipe.