By Jill S. Devine
Juan Carlos Sanabria, owner and chef of Aldie Mexican food restaurant t’KiLa Latin Kitchen & Bar, says that his customers tend to fall into two camps: those who know what Mexican mole is and those who do not.
“Mole is a dish that showcases what traditional Mexican cuisine is really all about,” Sanabria said.
Sanabria grew up in Bolivia and fell in love with Mexican cuisine as he worked his way up in the restaurant industry, serving under talented chefs, who he calls his mentors. They taught him the labor of love that is mole.
At t’KiLa, he dedicates the month of April each year to educating diners about the beloved Mexican staple. Beginning Monday, April 2, t’KiLa will feature a limited-time menu offering four different traditional moles from central and southern Mexico. Before ordering, customers will be presented with a mole sample tray, and the wait staff will suggest the appropriate protein to pair with each mole.
Considering how tightly mole (pronounced moe-lay) is woven into the fabric of Mexican culture, it is surprising that this rich comfort dish is not featured on more menus in the United States. The reason, Sanabria said, is that producing a single batch of authentic mole requires more effort and time than many restaurants can afford to give.
“The whole process is so laborious,” he explained, starting with the procurement of the critical fresh ingredients, to the tedious roasting, toasting, grinding and slow simmering of all the various recipe components. “It takes several days to create a mole and to allow proper time for the flavors to settle,” he said.
On any plate, mole may look like a sauce, but it’s considered an entrée. It is supported by complementary proteins (such as chicken, beef, pork or shrimp) and starches (potatoes, rice, bread or tortillas), but make no mistake; the mole is the main event.
There is no single definition of mole, as there are as many varieties as there are Mexican regions and family recipes. Mole recipes are highly complex, containing no fewer than 20 but sometimes as many as 100 ingredients. All mole recipes have two ingredients in common, however: chili peppers and love. Chili peppers form the common base of all moles, some using as many as a dozen different types of chilies in just one recipe. The love is passed down from one generation to the next in the form of painstaking preparation of each carefully chosen ingredient. Before modern machinery, entire villages would participate in the production of mole, where the duties were divided between careful roasting of ingredients, and laborious hand grinding and milling.
Aside from the common base of chilies, ingredients range widely, but the most common include other peppers, onions, garlic, seeds (pumpkin, squash, sesame), nuts (walnuts, almonds, pine), tomatillos, peanuts, raisins and other dried fruits, breads, grains, anise, cloves, cinnamon, various stocks and even fresh avocado leaves and ripe plantains. Chocolate also makes an appearance in several moles, but Sanabria insists it must come from Mexico to achieve authentic flavor.
These ingredients are individually and painstakingly prepared and then slowly combined to simmer down to a velvety, thick, aromatic concoction that compares to nothing else. Sanabria notes that the most critical stage is roasting, because there is a fine line between charred and burnt chilies, after which a batch is ruined.
“In order to truly understand mole, you must experience traditional mole, not the mole made from store-bought pastes,” Sanabria stressed. Customers can be confident that t’KiLa’s featured moles contain nothing but carefully prepared fresh ingredients sourced from Mexico.
April’s menu will feature four moles: one from the state of Puebla, mole poblano (perhaps the best known and most popular mole, featuring Mexican chocolate); two from the state of Oaxaca, mole rojo (red) and mole negro (black); and one from Mexico City, mole pipian (slightly spicy blend of pumpkin seeds, tomatillos, chile poblano and nuts).
What’s Sanabria’s personal favorite? “I love the mole negro,” Sanabria said. “The sauce is made with chilies that are heavily roasted at 450 degrees, slightly charred, which intensifies the flavor. The sauce is very dark, almost black.”
Sanabria hopes that once customers experience authentic mole, they will return to check out the rest of his menu, which features a spectrum of Mexican fare, ranging from Yucatan Ceviche (shrimp, habanero citrus, avocado, orange segments, cilantro) and Mexican Flag (corn tortilla, beef barbacoa, chicken tinga, cheese, tomatillo, chipotle), to Tacos De Suadero (braised brisket, tortilla, salsa verde, onions, cilantro). Customers might also rest at t-KiLa’s bar, where they offer flights of tequila—and 95 different varieties to choose from.
t’KiLa Latin Kitchen & Bar is at 42010 Village Center Plaza, Suite 170, in Aldie. Learn more at tkilaaldie.com.