Low and Slow at El Mestizo

An odyssey in mole oddity.

The best Mexican meal I ever had was at a restaurant whose name I can't even remember. Other than the chips that arrived as soon as my wife and I sat down, and the small cup of red salsa that was sweet and sharp, like licking honey off a razor, I can't recall anything I ate. I don't know the day of the week or the time of day, other than that it was late. I can't remember the street the restaurant was on, only that it was in Albuquerque.What I remember was hunger—the desperate, near-tears kind. What I remember was the way this little taqueria was the only thing lit on an otherwise dark street, gleaming bright and hot and bleeding neon into the night like a wound. What I remember is only the circumstance: Laura and I heading west in an undependable used car, making a half-frantic midnight run from New York, headed for the warm sun and palm trees of Southern California. Albuquerque was where the car broke down. We decided to stay the night—and ended up staying for two years.This nameless Mexican restaurant was the first place we ate in the city—huddled together in a window seat, crouched low over a basket of chips and a bowl of salsa. I remember looking out over the nighttime view of a city that was soon to become home to us, contrary to all our best-laid plans.Even though I can barely remember it, I'll never forget that restaurant.The best Mexican food I ever had was served in a place that was barely a restaurant at all—just a rattletrap kitchen and a few picnic tables scattered around a dusty front yard in upstate New York. I found the place only because a friend of a friend of a friend had told me about it—this joint in the back of beyond where the migrant peach-pickers went when they were looking for work, company, or lunch. I had posole, rich with chicken stock and green chiles' vegetable heat, and thick with cracked kernels of hominy. Because I don't much care for cilantro, I'd asked for mine without. The guy working the counter had stared at me as he added a big fistful of it to the top of my bowl. I didn't argue, just ate. It was the first posole I'd ever tasted, and to this day stands as the best.When I discovered sopapillas (Albuquerque, again), I made an entire meal of them and swore that, now that I knew what I'd been missing all my life, I'd never again be able to live without them. In Juarez, years later and just a few days before Christmas, I thought I'd found my true home at a bar far outside the American quarter, down an alley lined with takeout chicken joints and roofed with a thousand piñatas. I remember staring at Laura over a picket fence of beer bottles, my head on the bar, and being in love with everything—the girl, the place, the city, the air. I was waiting for a basket of tacos to come from the kitchen and swimming in the metallic, refrigerated breeze from the air conditioner that the bartender would only turn on if you paid him one American dollar, same as the price of a beer, for 10 minutes of cool bliss.Mexican is my soul food, my comfort, my consolation. It is my fallback cuisine and first among my priorities: find tacos, then breathe. Mexican food speaks to me in a language that transcends food and cuts straight to the lizard-brain pleasure centers. There is no taco that doesn't recall other tacos to me. There is no sope or enchilada that does not remind me of all the sopes and enchiladas I have eaten before. And even at a distance, the sound of an accordion or a fat-bodied guitar will always make me hungry.Saturday night on Broadway, I could hear the music before the door to El Mestizo even opened."How many for dinner?" said the hostess."Four, please," I replied."Of course," she beamed, and put us right by the window—our two friends by the wall, Laura and I across from each other, staring out at another night in another new hometown.There were no fresh-from-the-fryer chips this time, no little pot of razor-blade salsa, but there were tablecloths and glassware and silver that all matched. El Mestizo is new, barely three months old, and there is a sense of lightness to it—of a place which has not yet completely found itself or the reach of its space. It is a simple shotgun-shack of a room, long and narrow, with a nice bar running down the right-hand side and a spray of tables clothed in virginal white on the left. The ceiling is unfinished, the walls sparsely decorated, the floor maybe half-committed on a night when it should be booming. It operates as though crouching in the middle of a room that's too big for it—too afraid yet to spread and work to the corners. And the manager, dressed in a chef's coat the color of old mustard, spends all of Saturday night standing sentinel by the front door, looking out into the night as though by will alone he could draw in the numbers he'd need to fill his floor to capacity. When he ducks out to answer a text on his phone, the entire place seems unguarded and emptier for the missing weight of his concentration.We order beers and house margaritas served in rocks glasses and pore over menus that read like a greatest-hits collection of Mexican resort food, abuelita cuisine, and bar grub gone upscale. There are alambres straight out of some Mexico City all-night diner—sliced beef and bacon sautéed with bell peppers and onions, topped with melted cheese, and served with tortillas—and Pueblan chile en nogada (fat, roasted poblano peppers stuffed with what amounts to a Mexican picadillo of ground beef and fruit in a nutty cream sauce), huaraches done six different ways, and molletes (which I haven't seen on any kind of Mexican-restaurant menu, high-end or low, in a long time) that are like a midnight version of sur de la frontera toast points, topped with refritos negros, queso fresco, and thin, sour Mexican crema."Picaditas," I say when the hostess (now our waitress, also an occasional busser and cocktail waitress), comes back by the tables. "Tostadas de tinga. Molletes. Oh, and tacos. Four. Carne asada and chorizo."The food arrives quickly. There is a minor mistake with our order, made up for with a rush order from the kitchen of even more food. The picaditas are mounted on handmade tortillas, soft and mealy—nothing more than a smear of refried black beans, queso fresco, and crema with marinated chicken mounded on each. The tostadas are essentially the same, only minus the thick, rich, and lardy black-bean refritos and set on a crisp tortilla rather than a soft one. The tacos are served street-style: open-faced with nothing more than meat and chopped onion and a sprinkling of cilantro (an herb I have come to tolerate, if not love). With a squeeze of lime, they are perfect, but it's the chicken—deeply smoky, touched with a bit of chipotle heat, onion sweetness, and that brick-red and earthy savor of adobo—that really moves me. I eat the chicken and then I drink my beer. Then I eat a taco, then more chicken. It is hauntingly good, and when I've eaten it all (not sharing nearly as much as I should've) and left behind a bunch of naked tortillas, fried and soft, I am sad."We're going to need more food," I say to no one in particular. Everyone else at the table is having their own conversations. Really, I'm just talking to myself.We order a second course. Wanting to take something of a tour, we space it out—going for camarones al mojo de ajo out of Baja, cochinita pibil (another rarity, though less so than the molletes) from the Yucatan, hojaldra de mole (a straight-up resort dish with an oddly Froggish slant in the split and baked puff-pastry shell) and pollo en mole, the abuelita classic.El Mestizo's mole is weird. Not bad-weird, just weird. I've never had anything quite like it before. Too carefully balanced and constructed to be anything but deliberate, it is a wickedly sweet version of the traditionally very savory bittersweet Mexican chocolate sauce.Now I understand that there are as many mole recipes out there as there are Mexican grandmothers cooking it. I understand that there is no such thing as a "standard" or a "traditional" mole. Mole owes its existence as much to oral tradition as does any family history or folktale—the recipe passed down through generations, rarely tinkered with, never lost. As much as Mexican food has come to serve me as a second, edible soul over the years, so does mole affect those who grew up eating it all their lives. The best mole is always the one that was there on the family table. Second-best is everyone else's.But I have eaten a lot of mole in the past 15 years, and have never had one like El Mestizo's. Set before us on our overloaded table, I can smell the almost cajeta sweetness of it. Taking a bite, it is like a cinnamon barbecue sauce mixed with Hershey's syrup.On the chicken thighs of the pollo en mole, there is a lingering aftertaste of bitter chocolate, nuts, and chile pods. Mostly I taste the sugar. In the hojaldra, the sweetness is even more pronounced—the puff pastry acting like a sponge and soaking up the more volatile oils. I don't dislike either dish. But in their oddity, both of them hit me like a surprise punch in the mouth, leaving me a little stunned.The cochinita is more my speed, partly because it is made of pig, with which I am back on more familiar turf. Marinated overnight in citrus juice, spiced (and colored) with annatto seed, wrapped in banana leaf, and baked low and slow, it is what I was expecting: an artful and traditional take on a classic dish a million years old, a holdover from the earliest days of men and meat and fire. And the camarones, if somewhat less antique, are the same way, the thin garlic-and-butter sauce shot through with a bit of chile heat sharpened by lemon juice, the shrimp swimming in the puddle, snuggled up against a mound of heavily buttered and vaguely cheesy rice pilaf.But it is the mole that keeps drawing me back—this notion that something I've eaten a hundred times could still surprise me, still be so fundamentally different than every other mole I have known. I dig in my fork, scrape along the bone, and though what I come up with looks like a simple chicken mole, it doesn't smell or taste like one. It has no plain antecedent in my memory. Rather than reminding me of two dozen other moles that have come before it, it speaks only to my ability to still be surprised.I lived for more than a decade in the Southwest and the Mountain West, doing time in the land of a million tacos. I became accustomed to the small feeling of security I got from knowing that no matter how far sideways any day ever went, I would never be too far from a sopapilla, a taco, or a plate of desebrado. To make up for my years of want and privation, I buried myself in the borrowed food culture of a people not my own and learned to weigh memories and experiences by the smell of chicharrones frying or the particular chocolaty aroma of mole on the stove.But such a superfluity of options can sometimes dull those senses once sharpened by lack. And at El Mestizo, I am reminded that familiar backgrounds of accordions and onions frying, window seats, street tacos, and pork can sometimes serve to better couch the shock of newness. I liked everything I ate at El Mestizo, and would on later days return for seconds and thirds. But what I'll remember as this place and its name fade is the sweet, strange smell of cinnamon and sugar, the faded chile-and-chocolate aftertaste, the sticky darkness of shredded chicken under golden puff pastry.What I liked was my dinner. What I'll remember was the mole.jsheehan@seattleweekly.comPrice Check

  Tostadas  $6

  Tacos  $2.50

  Picaditas  $8

  Chicken mole  $14

  Hojaldra de mole  $12

  Alambres  $12

  Cochinita pibil  $13

 
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