The Mole Negro at Guelaguetza

According to Jonathan Gold, when the mayor of Oaxaca comes to Los Angeles, he eats at Guelaguetza. It’s listed on Gold’s 99 Essential L.A. Restaurants 2011 and in his original review he calls it “one of the best Oaxacan restaurants in the country.” Clearly, then, I knew I had to go there; and I knew I had to go especially for the mole negro which Gold describes as “black as midnight, black as tar, black as Dick Cheney’s heart.”

I love going on lunch adventures. Dinner adventures are harder to coordinate: there’s more traffic getting there and bigger crowds once you arrive. At lunch, though, a place like Guelaguetza, which is in a huge banquet hall in Koreatown, feels like an empty palace where you get to play king. This should give you a sense of what I’m talking about:


Immediately when you set down at Guelaguetza (which, I should point out, is fun to say), you’re treated with tortilla chips doused in a rich mole sauce and sprinkled with queso fresco:


If this meal were a novel, consider this the foreshadowing. That mole is rich and velvety and those chips are almost impossible to stop eating.

When it came time to order, I ordered myself a horchata–a sweetened rice drink–that comes with a pink syrup on top (doing some research, I’m pretty sure it’s a cactus fruit syrup) along with nuts and other chopped up fruit:


That’s a good sweet foil to the salty chips; and also a nice foil to my entree, the mole negro you see at the top of this post. Here’s another picture (I ordered it with dark meat chicken, so that’s a leg and a thigh):


Look how black that is! Jonathan Gold has it right: it’s blacker than coal, blacker than space, blacker than a well-worn tire. (Note: comparing our metaphors, you can see why Gold has a Pulitzer and I don’t.) As for the taste, it’s truly phenomenal: deep, deep flavor–shades of cinnamon and chili are there just beneath the surface, but that black color has its own taste. And I’ve never tasted a mole quite like it; it’s indeed the best I’ve ever had.

It came with fresh, warm tortillas, which were a perfect canvas:


And I also ordered a tamale to round out the meal (and to cover more of the menu for you, my loyal readers):


The waiter gave me a quizzical look when I ordered this tamale, as if to say, “Are you sure that’s the one you want?” It wasn’t until I unwrapped it and tasted it that I understood:


This was a sweet tamale, almost like a dessert. It was very good–I detected cinnamon in there too–but a strange companion for my deep, almost profoundly delicious, mole negro.

When people give me a sorrowful look about moving from New York to L.A. and say something like, “Aren’t you going to miss the food?” I’d like to tie a rope around them and drag them to a place like Guelaguetza. There’s nothing quite like this on the east coast or, really, anywhere else in the country. And, more importantly, I live in a city where someone of Jonathan Gold’s stature is telling me where to eat. 1 down, 98 more to go.

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