Find Rich, Savory Mole Sauce at these O‘ahu Mexican Restaurants
The chocolate sauce is as rare and mysterious as the family recipes that inspire them.
Alone in a booth in a mostly empty restaurant, I was waiting for a phone call and killing time, hard. Latin music wafted from a distant portal. The owner quietly placed a menu on the table and I realized I had been staring at the darkened screen on my phone. I needed only a quick glance at the laminated pages. “Can I try the mole?”
A while ago, a chef on television derided another chef’s mole as a kitchen mishap, the accidental result of a jar of chocolate falling onto the chicken. I was intrigued by how wrong it sounded, and how right it could be. Today was my chance to find out. “Oh, you’ll like the mole,” the owner said. “Perfect for a day like this.” The plate, when it came, was a composition of layered browns—grilled chicken coated with a dark gravy and the requisite side of refried beans and rice.
This was how I came to love mole. A combination of dozens of ingredients—chiles and nuts, dried spices like cumin, cinnamon, chile powder; fruits like raisins, plantains and tomatoes; different kinds of Mexican chocolate; and starches like stale tortillas (or even animal crackers, according to one recipe)—are separately roasted, fried, pulverized and layered into a stock to simmer until everything mellows and blends into a dark, thick gravy that lets no light escape. It’s a kind of darkness you won’t mind falling into.
Only a handful of restaurants around O‘ahu serve mole. Most of them use family recipes made in-house with pride, with dozens of ingredients, many of which are kept secret. Here is a roundup.
Los Chaparros Mexican Restaurant
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It all started here, with a dark mole sauce blanketing slices of grilled chicken. Have you heard the story of the panther who demanded that a painter adorn him with all the colors of the world? When the painter obliged, the colors blend blackly. That’s what’s happening here and there is no shame in that. Despite its simple presentation, Los Chaparros’ mole is bold but subtle, giving and withholding. This is a bottomless pit of flavors—everything in the world melting into one cohesive whole. The aromatics of the spices hit you and evaporate, leaving a rich, decadent smoky base, savory with chocolate and coffee notes. There’s some of this and some of that, fleeting tastes that are impossible to pin down. Have it over chicken enchiladas or sliced chicken and corn tortillas. Leave all your troubles behind.
Mole enchiladas $17.50, chicken mole $16.25, side of mole $2.75. 2140 S. Beretania St. (808) 951-6399, loschaparros.com
Taqueria El Gallo Rosa
A lighter, aromatic Oaxacan mole using local ingredients that hits a high note on your palate—bittersweet, with chiles and cumin, and a richness that hints of milk chocolate, which is not one of the 24 ingredients that go into this dish. Miniature bales of tender, shredded beef meld well with the sauce, and are packed into small, fragrant corn tortillas. The beef is saturated but not sopping with sauce. Garnished with sesame seeds, bright acidic pickled onions, cilantro and hoja santa. Perfect handheld bites.
El Charro Mexicano Restaurant
This is a darker mole poblano from a family recipe that traces back to Puebla in central Mexico. You can have it over really tender shredded chicken, or with chicken enchiladas. Portions are generous and the mole drenches and coats everything. This is a dark and dense sauce with its own event horizon. There is really mild heat, with chocolate and darker dried fruit flavors. There is a touch of sweetness to this one. Savored every bite.
Mexico Enchiladas (in mole sauce) $20.99, Chicken Mole Plate $22.99. 99-115 Aiea Heights Dr., (808) 488-9727, @elcharro_aiea
This one is from a family recipe that comes from the city of Guerrero and is on the menu as mama “chonitas” recipe, with ingredients like ancho and guajillo chiles, raisins, almonds, peanuts and chocolate. The rest is for insiders only. Believe me, I tried to find out more. The sauce is portioned out a little more conservatively over enchiladas than at other locations. Of the lot, this dish was much heavier on the cheese and sour cream toppings, and they combine with the sauce’s own richness. Note: Not every Pacos Tacos location serves it, so I would call ahead for the Kaua‘i locations.
$19, 555 N. King St., (808) 772-4123
A lighter mole in consistency with a reddish-brown hue. This from another time-intensive family recipe that comes from Juarez. Shredded chicken sits in the mole that’s more braising liquid than sauce or gravy. Definitely spicier. The chile de arbol can’t wait to hit you and declare itself the alpha of this arena, a player from the upper brackets of the Scoville chart. Still, the delicate aromatics of cinnamon and chocolate dance through, taunting you as you wipe your brow. This was the most unique of the moles I’ve had. It stands out as an example of how diverse this dish is.
$12.75, 177 S. Kamehameha Hwy, (808) 622-5829
I’m told there are other moles, like white mole made with pistachios and white chocolate. Moles made with a peanut base that tastes like the peanut sauce at Thai restaurants. One home recipe I came across was a simple mixture of cinnamon and chocolate.
So if you know of any others, let us know, and we’ll add it to this post. Mole may not be the flashiest, newest or trendiest item on a menu, but these restaurants take the time to make it. Try them sometime.