Mole may be Mexico's most misunderstood export here in Colorado; syrupy sweet chocolate concoctions have done much to obscure the finer points of the complex sauces. I recently overheard a conversation about searching for good mole negro in Denver that ended without resolution, but there's a perfectly reasonable explanation for that: In any country with a sizable population and long history, food is regional, and recipes vary as much from family to family as from town to town. Denver's population of Mexican immigrants is large and thriving, but not all regions are equally represented. Compared to the populations in Southern California or even Chicago, very few Oaxacans have settled in Denver — and mole negro is distinct to the kitchens of Oaxaca.
Mole — which simply means "sauce" — isn't a monolithic entity; recipes are based on local ingredients in different regions of Mexico. I recently visited Oaxaca and took a cooking class from chef/restaurateur Pilar Cabrera, who explained that her home state offers the most variety when it comes to mole (with seven recognized styles and a multitude of variations on all of those), but that Michoacan and Puebla are also known for varying mole styles. Mole negro may be the most complex mole — and the most difficult to create outside of Oaxaca, primarily because many of the ingredients are distinct to the southern state and aren't readily available here. Certain chiles — chilhaucles, smoked mecos, anchos negros — have unique flavors that can't be replicated, even if substitutions are made.
Exploring Denver's Mexican grocery stores (try the small but well-provisioned Super Carniceria Compare at 2796 South Federal Boulevard) may yield some of the rarer ingredients, and online shopping can fill in the rest. But freshness is a consideration, as is the fact that Oaxaca is a very agrarian region, where meats and produce are sold in season and straight from small farms, and ingredients like lard are so of-the-moment that they've never even felt refrigeration. So rather than attempt to combine upwards of 25 ingredients in the hopes of replicating the moles made by Oaxacan cooks with decades of experience, I stowed a pound or so of mole negro paste in my luggage and finished the sauce at home with the addition of tomatoes and broth.
A return trip to the open-air market where I purchased my paste is cost-prohibitive just for the sake of a good mole negro, and unfortunately, I've been unable to find any Denver restaurants that offer the Oaxacan dish (let us know if you've discovered any!), but we're still lucky to have a couple of restaurants where good moles from other regions of Mexico are made.
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Mole poblano is probably the most iconic mole outside of Mexico — and the most commonly found in Denver. But many versions are oversimplified, over-sweetened or just too chocolatey. Brothers Hanzel and Eder Yañez-Mota, natives of Puebla and owners of Chili Verde, dish up a bittersweet version of mole poblano that tantalizes with hints of chocolate but also reveals nutty, fruity and spicy flavors in the complex blend. Not all moles contain chocolate. though, and not all are brown in color. Chili Verde also offers a lighter, tangier mole verde that's just as thick and sumptuous as the poblano (best suited for chicken) but matches better with pork.
Head south on Federal Boulevard to Tarasco's New Latino Cuisine for a taste of mole as it's made in Michoacan. The house specialty is mole de siete chiles (seven chiles); the sauce robes bone-in chicken or slow-cooked pork in toasty, warm flavors of chiles treated gently to avoid even a hint of bitterness. Like Chili Verde, Tarasco's also makes a mole verde with the grassy flavors of jalapeño and nuttiness from toasted pumpkin seeds — but for something unique, ask about the mole amarillo, a subtle yellow sauce that shows off the kitchen's finesse.
Until more Oaxacans decide to make Denver home, I'm stuck with a dwindling tub of mole negro and a finite supply of mezcal to help me relive the culinary memories of my trip, but at least Chili Verde and Tarasco's are here to satisfy my mole cravings.