Daily Herald

Family mole recipes add spice to updated taqueria

Posted Thursday, October 05, 2006

Fans of the luscious moles served at Geno Bahena's erstwhile restaurants Ixcapulzalco and Chilpancingo need no longer despair that Bahena has left for the West Coast. Bahena's brother-in-law, Carlos Tello, now has his own restaurant and his consulting chef and mole expert is the same as Bahena's - Clementina Flores, Bahena's mother.

A few months ago, Tello took over Sol de Mexico, a former taqueria in Belmont-Cragin, and dressed it up with folk art and colorful paintings, many of which came from Chilpancingo. More importantly, he upgraded the menu to more serious fare, including several of the famous moles of Oaxaca, made according to the family recipes.

Oaxaca, in southern Mexico, is particularly celebrated for its moles (pronounced "MOH-lays," from the Nahuatl "molly," meaning "concoction), complex sauces that can contain as many as 30 ingredients. For example, the deep brown-black mole negro, the most common type, typically contains six kinds of chilies, nuts, seeds, raisins, tomato, garlic, onions, plantains, chocolate, spices, lard and more.

Compounding these sauces can be an all-day affair requiring separately toasting and grinding each ingredient. Every cook has his or her own secret recipes.

Sol de Mexico regularly makes mole negro, red mole rojo, green mole verde and red-brown mole manchamanteles (concocted from ancho chilies, spices and pineapple, among other things), as well as simpler sauces and salsas. Its tortillas are made by hand on the premises.

The menu, something of a work in progress, is currently divided into appetizers, slightly larger "tapas Mexicanas" and "platillos."

We began with the guacamole, freshly prepared to order and served in a cute metal sombrero, surrounded by house-made tortilla chips. Guacamole seems to have become somewhat declasse among Mexican-food aficionados, but I don't care. Its history dates back to the Aztecs, and I love it. Sol de Mexico makes a fine version, with nice and chunky avocado combined with diced tomato, onion, cilantro and a touch of hot pepper.

Other appetizers include Chihuahua cheese-filled quesadillas, flavored simply with the herb epazote or stuffed with shrimp and served with chipotle salsa; Mexican-style shrimp cocktail; and tostadas topped with seviche made from marlin and olives.

Several types of tamales figure among the tapas selection: corundas Michoacanas, flat green corn-masa cakes served with pork stew; tamales Oaxaquenos, filled with chicken and steamed in banana leaves, served with mole negro; and not-to-be missed tamales uchepos, delicious masa cylinders left unfilled but generously studded with fresh sweet corn and drizzled with lightly chili-infused sour cream and shredded cheese over a pool of piquant green salsa.

Although they're not described quite that way, the tapas list also offers a number of options for those who feel like tacos, all accompanied by freshly made corn tortillas for wrapping your own. You could order several of these to share and go away happy. They include carne asado, skirt steak tips in a salsa of roasted tomato, chile de arbol and garlic; carne al carbon, marinated round steak with tomatillo-avocado salsa; lengua, beef tongue in tomatillo salsa with onions and cilantro; pescado en mole verde, tilapia in green mole; callo de hacha con creme de chile chipotle, baby scallops in smoked-jalapeno cream sauce; and our choice, borrego con mole negro.

"Borrego con mole negro" also appears on the platillos menu, described as "grilled rack of lamb" served with mashed potatoes, and we assumed the tapas borrego would be a smaller portion of lamb chops without the spuds. A question to our waitress seemed to confirm this, but what we received instead were chunks of braised lamb in sauce. The sauce was electrifying - rich, multilayered in flavor with a slightly bitter edge. The lamb, though meltingly tender, was overly fatty; the entree rack of lamb, served with the same sauce, may be a better choice.

The chuleta de puerco con manchamanteles proved an excellent main dish, however, a thick meaty chop, accompanied by mashed potatoes and served with a thick, brick-red sauce whose name translates as "tablecloth stainer." The sauce is fruity without being sweet and a little lighter than the negro. We asked for more tortillas to mop it up with.

We also enjoyed the camarones con mole verde, one of two shrimp dishes on the menu. In this dish, the plump pink crustaceans came swimming around a mound of rice in a sprightly green sauce made from various green veggies, pumpkinseeds and sesame seeds with more sesame seeds scattered around.

Less successful, the chiles rellenos suffered from variation in the chilies themselves. The relatively innocuous picadillo made from ground meat with diced potato and carrot filled two very large and plump poblanos set over a pleasant but uninspired tomato salsa. While one of the peppers had such a mild flavor as to render the dish insipid, the other was almost tongue-numbingly spicy. Chilies are, after all, a natural product and such disparity happens, but even had it used perfect poblanos, I'd recommend skipping this dish in favor of something that comes with mole. Some pretty good refried black beans and white rice come alongside.

Other main-course options include grilled chicken breast in Teloloapense-style red mole; a pork chop in a sauce made from roasted tomatoes, smoked chilies, chorizo and mushrooms; and red snapper baked with tomato, herbs, capers, olives and pickled jalapenos.

The only dessert offered was flan, a dense, almost cheese-like version in sweet caramel syrup.

The Chicago area continues to be blessed with wonderful Mexican food and Sol de Mexico provides yet another worthwhile example.

Sol de Mexico

3018 N. Cicero Ave., Chicago, (773) 282-4119

Cuisine: Creative, upscale Mexican

Setting: Attractive storefront in Belmont-Cragin

Price range: Appetizers and tapas $3.95 to $9.95; entrees $10.95 to $14.95; dessert $3

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays through Saturdays; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays

Accepts: Visa and Mastercard, reservations

Also: Street parking; no smoking; temporary BYOB while liquor license is pending

• Restaurant reviews are based on one anonymous visit. Our aim is to describe the overall dining experience while guiding the reader toward the menu's strengths. The Daily Herald does not publish reviews of restaurants it cannot recommend.