Slow-cooked chile-based sauces called moles underpin the storied cuisine of Oaxaca in southern Mexico. When done right, the sauces are marvels of subtlety, each of the many ingredients adding a note of flavor without overpowering the palate.
Moles are the star at La Guelaguetza, a year-old Oaxacan restaurant on a wide stretch of Old Coors at the upper fringes of the South Valley. The first thing offered to guests is a small plate covered with samples of that day’s moles. The sauces, cooked for over four hours, range from the familiar dark-brown, almost black mole negro to a red-brown mole rojo. Each one is marvelously complex, with ingredients such as ancho chiles, jalapeños, unsweetened chocolate and almonds imparting sweet, nutty, smoky and spicy flavors.
Along with the mole sampler, guests get a complimentary bowl of housemade potato chips, curled up like dried leaves and perfect for scooping up the sauces. It’s the kind of welcoming gesture that has generated considerable word-of-mouth acclaim for La Guelaguetza, whose name refers to an annual celebration of indigenous culture in Oaxaca. The word roughly translates to “exchange of gifts” in the language of the Zapotec civilization, which flourished in the region 2,500 years ago.
The restaurant shares a stucco-covered building with a bodega. It’s easy to miss, as the lettering on the sign fights for attention with a riot of colorful forms that make up the background.
Inside is a sparely decorated space of booths and tables, with regional Mexican music sounding faintly from the kitchen. The other parties in the house for lunch, including a large group of men who arrived in a work truck, speak Spanish. The menu is in Spanish too, but the server is happy to walk the non-Spanish speaker through it.
The two mole-based dishes on the menu include mole oaxaqueño ($12.50), a chicken breast served in a shallow bowl of sauce, and enchiladas de mole ($10.50). The latter presents four enchiladas wrapped around moist, shredded chicken and served with rice and beans. If you liked all the moles in the sampler, as I did, you can get a strip of each spread across the enchiladas. The experience of working your way from the nutty, smoky mole negro to the fiery mole rojo elevates a familiar dish into something extraordinary.
Aside from the mole dishes, the menu is expansive and inventive, offering seafood such as shrimp, tilapia and salmon and assorted preparations of beef and pork. Other Oaxacan specialties include banana-leaf wrapped tamales ($2.75 each) and tlayuda ($9/$12), a spread of cheese, meat and tomatoes over tostadas that’s often referred to as Oaxacan pizza.
Portions are generous. The Luciano chimichanga ($11.75), a deep-fried burrito filled with braised and shredded brisket, rice, jalapeños and corn, is more than enough for two to share. The brisket, fork-tender and well-seasoned, pairs well with the crisp, non-greasy tortilla shell, as do the chile verde soup and crema, a Mexican condiment that registers as a thinner version of sour cream.
On the outside chance that you have room for dessert, La Guelaguetza offers an assortment of cakes and other treats ranging in price from $3.50 to $7. There’s no booze, but the housemade horchata ($3), with a nice balance of creamy rice and cinnamon flavors, and the agua de jamaica ($3), made from steeping dried hibiscus flowers overnight, help the food go down easier. The jamaica water has the added benefit of being good for the kidneys; at least, that’s what the server told me.
In a city chock-full of Mexican restaurants, La Guelaguetza stands out for its level of service and its faithful interpretations of Oaxacan cuisine.