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A saucy craving

Sampling Atlanta's mole at Zocalo, Rosa Mexicano and El Huachinago Taqueria

One of my frequent cravings is mole, the Mexican sauce made of ground chilies and dozens of other ingredients in some recipes. In the States, "mole' usually means "mole poblano," which is famous for its inclusion of chocolate. People make much of this. Novices often fear that mole is going to taste like Hershey's chocolate syrup, but the small amount of unsweetened chocolate typically used is barely noticeable. Sometimes, cacao beans are used.

I first encountered mole poblano during my years in Texas. I visited a restaurant partly owned by Diana Kennedy, the doyenne of Mexican cooking, and was blown away by the rich, sweet and piquant sauce poured over enchiladas stuffed with chicken.

Later, I spent the better part of a year in San Miguel de Allende in central Mexico. Friends had rented a huge house there for an amazingly small amount of money and had hired a full-time cook. She had her own mole recipe, a dark one, but she also made a yellow one with pumpkin seeds and, as I recollect, a green one, too. There was a market in San Miguel where people sold various moles, some as pastes to which broth was added, some in finished form. Everyone had his or her favorite.

I was excited when three siblings who grew up not far from San Miguel de Allende – Lucero, Luis and Marco Martinez-Obregon – opened Zocalo (186 10th St., 404-249-7576) about 10 years ago. They imported their family's own mole from Mexico. It was a rich, dark one with a zing to it. Now Lucero, who was the original chef at the restaurant, says she's making her own mole. It differs from the original in that it includes much more fruit and less of a fiery bite. The result is a predominantly sweet but – like all good moles – layered medley of flavors.

We dined at the restaurant for the first time in a while last week. The family recently closed its taqueria in Grant Park, leaving many of my neighbors distraught. Lucero explained that the restaurant did a great lunch business but not enough dinner business to justify continuing it. She and her brothers are looking for another location.

We went to Zocalo after paying a visit to Rosa Mexicano (245 18th St., 404-347-4090), which is the only gourmet Mexican restaurant in town these days, although its menu here is not as interesting as the original New York restaurant's. The best time to hit Rosa Mexicano in my experience is during weeks they feature special menus. I ate the same thing at Zocalo and Rosa Mexicano – enchiladas with mole and guacamole made tableside.

The mole at Rosa Mexicano is a Veracruz version, according to the menu, and combines raisins, plantains, pine nuts and the three usual chilies – mulato, ancho and pasilla. It is by far my favorite dish here. The plate includes three large enchiladas, stuffed with shredded chipotle beef, swimming in the sauce, which, like Zocalo's, is predominantly sweet but with a slight burn that accelerates while you spoon up the mole.

My enchiladas at Zocalo were stuffed with chicken instead of beef. I found the mole definitely fruitier than Rosa Mexicano's. It was also a redder color, meaning that a different chili probably predominates. For complexity of flavor, Zocalo wins. But, honestly, there wasn't enough mole on the enchiladas and the chicken stuffing was a bit overcooked.

The guacamole, which is treated like an obligatory starter by the staff at Rosa Mexicano (for a hefty $12), is usually good. I asked that the onions be left out, but bits of jalapeño, cilantro and tomato added plenty of flavor. I have to say, though, that Zocalo's version (only $5.95) had far more flavor. I think this was a direct result of the quality and ripeness of the avocados.

Wayne avoided the mole at both restaurants. At Zocalo, he ordered the crepes filled with picadillo and covered with a lot of chipotle cream sauce, garnished with toasted pecans. At Rosa Mexicano, he ordered the arrachera con camarones – grilled skirt steak and jumbo shrimp in a roasted tomato-chipotle sauce, topped with queso fresco. Honestly, I found the latter dish inferior. The only way to eat it and feel full is to roll the ingredients into corn tortillas, but I also found the sauce bland.

My intention was to also sample the mole at Nuevo Laredo Cantina (1495 Chattahoochee Ave., 404-352-9009). The chicken mole is my favorite dish at this restaurant featuring Mexican and border cuisine. It's a pure mole poblano that I've craved regularly for years.

Unfortunately for me, everyone else apparently likes the mole as much as I do. They were out of it when I visited last week.

So I visited a new spot on Buford Highway – El Huachinago Taqueria (3360 Buford Highway). The name confuses me; it refers to red snapper but I didn't see any on the menu. In fact, I didn't see any mole on the menu, but when I told the man at the counter that I wanted chicken enchiladas with mole, he said, "No problem."

This taqueria is not exactly new. Its earlier name was Los Compadres, and the manager, who took a seat at my table, explained that the place had gotten a bad rep and the owners decided to get new management and make a fresh start.

I asked him if the kitchen made the mole and he said that he'd found a woman whose passion was making the famous sauce. He outlined the ingredients, in Spanish, faster than I could follow.

It was by far the most unusual of the moles I sampled. It was redder, much spicier and a little thinner. And the chicken was the best filling of the enchiladas I tried – juicy, spicy and flavorful. It was also the most generous serving and the cheapest – less than half Rosa Mexicano's charge.

El Huachinago does not accept credit cards and, while English is spoken, you'll do better speaking Spanglish.



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