Ethan Gordon describes his transcendent experience eating authentic Mole for the first time.
Taco Bell, Chipotle, your local bar’s fully loaded nachos. For most of us this triumvirate is how we ingest the majority of our “Mexican” food here in Canada. Overcooked ground beef, copious amounts of sour cream, and a bunch of replacement level hot sauce is what defines this sad and sorry excuse for an entire cultural cuisine, normally reserved for our drunkest and most regrettable late-night activities. They say we only use 10% of our brains, but I think what they meant is that most of us only get to taste 10% of what Mexican food can taste like.
I am a fan of food. Books about food, movies about food, shows about food, oh, and I guess eating food. Through my undying devotion to food in all its shapes and colours I began to learn what Mexican food actually is. American Chef Rick Bayless (brother of Skip for all you sports fans out there) was one of the first non-Mexicans to openly advocate for the possibilities and powers of that particular style of food, visiting the country as a young man and opening the popular Frontera Grill in Chicago, before earning a Michelin star for the fine dining establishment Topolobampo. As the winner of the 1st season of Top Chef Masters, up against some of the best chefs in America, Bayless introduced me to descriptions of dishes I had never heard of before, and won the competition with something called Oaxacan Mole (pronounced Wahakan Molay), a rich dark sauce coating meat that could have up to 40 ingredients in it, including coffee and chocolate. After seeing the most respected food judges in America become ensnared in its unique flavor, I swore I would eat authentic Mole one day, even if it took me my entire life.
Luckily, I didn’t have to wait long. This winter break I accompanied my girlfriend to her birth city of Mexico City (I swear I’m not just dating her for the food) in order to see a side of the country that most resort-frequenting tourists would probably never see. Even as we flew into the country I was reminded of what was in store, as I voraciously ate-up (not literally) an Air Canada in-flight magazine article all about one Toronto couple’s travels in Oaxaca to bring authentic Mole to the big city – look for Quetzal near Bathurst and College at some point this winter. We landed, and after meeting up with her father in the historic La Roma district, I was briefed on our mission: eat our way through the country until we basically collapse from gastronomical euphoria. After a first day of tasting fresh seafood at the wonderful La Docena, and addictive Al Pastor tacos (pork marinated and roasted on a shawarma like spit), we strapped in for the main event our second day in Mexico City – real life Mole.
The day started with a prolonged anticipation, as Mexicans revolve their eating day around lunch, usually later in the day from 3-5ish, and only eat dinner later in the evening, often times eating much less than their afternoon meal. Driving in from the mountainous suburbs into the heart of downtown was an ordeal, as Mexico City traffic makes Toronto look like a quaint farm town, and after desperately looking for parking, we disembarked, and made our way through the gorgeous colonial buildings of the central Paseo de la Reforma street, viewing monuments and statues dedicated to Mexico’s thrilling battle-filled history. After a leisurely stroll we arrived at the end location – Café de Tacuba, a 106 year-old restaurant dedicated to authentic Mexican food. Instead of the Nachos Supreme we started with ensalada de nopales, salad made with cactus, de-prickled and sautéed to a slimy yet satisfying texture. Then we enjoyed different types of soups, ranging from garlic to tortilla to tomato, before focusing on the true reason we were there. The Mole arrived with rice and beans, one of the few things that our Mexican food gets right, but it was all superfluous when it came to the deep, dark, and mysterious sea of sauce that was my meal. I cut into it, the tender chicken coming apart effortlessly, and took that faithful bite. I closed my eyes and began to meditate, having the rare experience of tasting something for the first time as an adult. It was sweet and rich, and while the chocolate was different than anything I had with meat before, it just made sense. I ate in silence, with my companions appreciating the spiritual journey I was on, and when the chicken was finished and sauce remained, I greedily grabbed the warm corn tortillas on the table and extracted every little bit of godly nectar I could.
The rest of the day was a blur, walking through the busy streets, seeing huge Christmas crowds mingle with native street dancers and poor vendors of every item known to man, but the Mole stayed with me. As we continued on our trip through the country, first to the mountain town of Bernal, then to the ancient ruins of Malinalco, and finally to the local beach getaway of Acapulco, I tasted more wondrous things, even Mole for a second time. And while I was told that the latter dish was actually of higher quality than the first one I ate, you never truly forget your first time.
Ethan Gordon is the Co-Editor in Chief of Juris Diction.