LET ME TELL YOU ABOUT Puebla, a city obsessed with a sauce. You think Naples is nuts about tomato sauce? That Paris is passionate about beurre blanc? You haven't seen anything until you've seen how they carry on about mole poblano in Puebla. Ever since the exotic chile-and-chocolate sauce was invented there in the seventeenth century, the city has been the epicenter of mole mania.
This summer a friend and I spent a week in the city and witnessed the phenomenon for ourselves. Every other restaurant had a sign in the window advertising chicken in mole (" mo-lay"). The chef of a popular hotel dining room told us he sells a thousand orders a month. At a neighborhood food market, alongside the freshly plucked chickens and buckets of flowers, I saw stack after stack of small plastic tubs of mole made by the wives and mothers of vendors; brimming bowls were set out so you could stick your finger in and taste. The local yellow pages list seven mole manufacturers, and a mole cookoff is held every June. Everyone has an opinion about whether you should use peanuts or almonds and if it's better to toast or fry the chiles. Quirky family recipes are treasured heirlooms: One woman told me that her mother always included six crumbled-up vanilla cookies; another said her mother insisted on two charred corn tortillas, for a smoky flavor.
What's so great about mole? It's hard to explain because, to Americans, the crucial combination of chiles and chocolate sounds bizarre. Mole is basically an Aztec chile sauce accented with Spanish spices and ground nuts. The name, from the Nahuatl molli, means a "concoction" or "mixture." The Spanish word poblano means "Puebla-style." Generally, when it comes to mole, people either love it or hate it. Me, I loved it the first time I tasted it, more than thirty years ago on a trip to Monterrey. The aromas of coriander and cinnamon and toasted sesame seeds wafted up from the plate. The first mouthful was tropical—plantains, raisins, and almonds—followed by a tingle of warmth from the chiles. Underneath it all was the seductive sweetness of the chocolate. Spicy, sweet, and sultry, mole seemed to me like all of Mexico condensed into one dish. Ever since then I've been on a quest to taste as many versions as I can. In Puebla, I thought, I might even find the perfect mole poblano .
My companion on this journey was my friend and fellow food fanatic Gini Garcia, of San Antonio. This past July the two of us met at the Mexico City airport to complete the final leg of our journey to Puebla, about eighty miles southeast. After a 25-minute plane ride, we took a cab into town and checked into the Holiday Inn, a modern hotel in a historic building with an austere and semicavernous, castlelike lobby.
VIPS, a bustling chain restaurant, bookstore, and drugstore, wasn't the most auspicious place to start sampling mole, but it was just down the street and we were famished. Surprise, surprise: VIPS's mole wasn't bad. The sauce was lighter in color than some, brick-red rather than brown, and very peanutty. We approved. We finished our dinner and took a stroll around the zócalo—the big, immaculately swept town square—to enjoy the scene and the weather, a perfect 70 degrees. Businesspeople with briefcases walked briskly by and young mothers bought balloons for their children. Puebla is a beautiful and dignified city, filled with Spanish Colonial buildings covered in colorful tiles, many arranged to form bold stripes and zigzags. It is also an old city, dating from 1531, and a big one, with some 2.5 million people in the metropolitan area. Above the palms and other tall trees sheltering the zócalo we could see the towers of the nearby cathedral.
The next day we met Mónica Mastretta, a local caterer and cooking teacher who works with tour groups, for lunch at the casual, open-air dining room of the rather grand Hotel Royalty. She said its mole was among the best in the city, and she was right. Dark and chocolaty, it had a strong allspice flavor and a delayed chile kick. The chef, a descendant of the hotel's founder and now a co-owner himself, told us that the original recipe was his grandmother's and the hotel has used it, almost unchanged, for 45 years. Could I have already found my perfect mole? Maybe. It is so popular that the Royalty has a nice sideline selling it in jars to go.
After lunch the irrepressible Mónica took us on a whirlwind culinary tour of downtown Puebla. She was wearing high heels and we were in sandals, but it was all we could do to keep up. We turned down several streets and finally came to a tiny cafe with bright plaid tablecloths. Although we hadn't intended to eat again, we found ourselves sitting down at Pepe Grillo, ordering enchiladas in mole. Rather light in color, a little granular, with lots of sesame flavor, the sauce had an appealing homemade quality. Afterward, Mónica dragged us a few blocks farther to Fonda de Santa Clara, a pleasant if touristy spot that is the city's most famous mole outpost. Gini and I were way too full to sample another drop of mole, but that night we went back for dinner. Santa Clara's mole lost points with us because it was served lukewarm, but otherwise it was good—rich, chocolaty, not too sweet.
We had breakfast the next morning with Ana Elena Martínez, also a caterer and tour guide, who filled us in on more of the city's locally famous foods. Agreeing to meet her later for lunch, Gini and I took off for her first recommendation, Nevados Hermilo, a humble cafe with Formica-topped tables, to try the odd little cocktails called nevados, served on the rocks in small glasses. Our dour waitress wouldn't reveal the recipe, but they seemed to be made with rompope (rum-spiked Mexican