BY CRAIG CAVALLO
New York City is a melting pot. Its inhabitants come from all corners of the world. As travelers move here to make the city their home, their culture is the first thing that gets unpacked when they arrive. Suitcases are unzipped and it escapes into the air, becoming part of what we as New Yorkers breathe. The city’s borders are the minister, or clergy, or rabbi that marries us and joins us in holy matrimony. It is sometimes the case that two travelers from different places find each other and find love. The next step is generally to get married. When the couple shares a passion for food, as is the case with Nick Cervera and Guadalupe Elizalde, after you get married, you open a Mexican restaurant.
Nick and Guadalupe are the owners of the Mole restaurants. With locations established on the Lower East Side (205 Allen Street), the West Village (57 Jane Street), and Williamsburg, Brooklyn (178 Kent Avenue), the opening of the Upper East Side location in March, at 1735 2nd Avenue, marks their fourth endeavor. Before it was transformed into a Mole, the Upper East Side 1735 address was the home to a print shop. At a recent tasting, Nick sat at the table before dinner ensued and spoke proudly of the work he put forth to make the interior what it is today; a comfortable, rustic, yet elegant display of Mexican-meets-New York heritage. Original exposed brick is decorated with black and white photos Nick took himself on his visits to Mexico, Guadalupe’s native country. The 17-foot long bar is made from 200-year old reclaimed wood and custom made Mexican tiles. It stands a bit off to the side, almost separate from the dining room. This is an intentional move designed to keep refugees from Brother Jimmy’s from stumbling in and ordering shots of Jose Cuervo after the Jets or Yankees suffer a loss.
Guadalupe cooks traditional fare at Mole and she is guided by original family recipes. There is a caldo on the menu, Caldo Tlalpeno. Variations of caldo (meaning “soup” or “broth”) exist in most Spanish speaking countries. At Mole, their caldo takes its name from a town about an hour and a half south of Mexico City. Nick mentioned that, driving between these two cities, roadside stands dot the road and sell this caldo along the way. Shredded chicken and mushrooms are the only thing keeping this clear, “mountainside” broth company. Chopped raw onions, cilantro, and lime accompany the soup, should you feel so inclined to disrupt the intense, deep, rich, clean spice that manages to hide in the deceiving broth.
You will find huitlacoche on the menu. Huitlacoche is a wild, naturally occurring corn fungus. During exceptionally rainy seasons, rain water can penetrate the husks that are supposed to protect corn from the elements and result in the growth of huitlacoche. Due to its rarity and inability to be harvested, the fungus is often referred to as the Mexican truffle. The ingredient is truly unique to Mexican cooking and Mole uses it with an ancestral understanding
Taquitos de Barbacoa are prepared at Mole “Relinas style,” a name used in devotion to Lupe’s dad, who would make the dish in Guadalupe’s youth by burying the meat used to fill the taquitos in cactus leaf and cooking it in the soil on his ranch for 12 hours.
Enchilada de Pato en Mole Poblano is the piece de resistance. The dish features duck confit, done here “carnitas style,” referring to the technique of cooking an animal in its own fat. The cooking method is commonly applied to pork, resulting in carnitas tacos. The sauce, Mole Poblano, is something like Mexican marinara, or Central America’s bechamel. It has taken on many forms and colors since nuns created it in the 16th century for the visiting archbishop. For use at the Mole restaurants, it is made in Mexico by Guadalupe’s mom and then flown here. It is intensely rich, dark and sweet from the inclusion of chocolate, both smoky and spicy from dried chilies, and made more complex, and texturally whimsical, with the addition of sesame seeds.
Though it is not an option listed on the menu, Nick is happy to pair each course with a different spirit, a move inspired by the philosophy practiced and popularized at places like Gramercy Tavern and Le Bernardin, and one that is rarely ever applied to Mexican cuisine. It provides Nick the chance to showcase the diversity of the 100 plus tequilas and mezcals Mole has on hand along with his understanding of his wife’s food.
As Mole continues to expand, Nick and Guadalupe keep a few Mexican-American standbys on the menu to appease their ever reaching clientele. You get the sense that fajitas are thrown onto the menu only to prevent the uninformed argument that, “Wait, you’re a Mexican restaurant and you don’t have fajitas on the menu?!” Like other Mexican haunts throughout the city, the guacamole is made table-side, but something about it seems less gimmicky when it’s done for you here.
The different locations of Mole itself are a reflection of the owners’ marriage. Their chain of restaurants is an extension of their home, a home whose doors are kept open for you seven days a week. Guadalupe came out from the kitchen at the end of the meal and introduced herself simply as Lupe. As she leaned down over our table, her smile seemed to say, “I’m just Lupe, and this is just the food I’ve been eating since I was a kid.”