The Artistry and Trade Secrets Of Houston's Best Mole
Chef Hugo Ortega breaks down one of the many sauces he's become known for.
August 2, 2017
By Nneka M. Okona | Image by Blake Smith
In the many states of Mexico, mole is far more than a sauce: It’s a way of living. It’s a way to taste life itself.
Chef Hugo Ortega, born in Mexico City to parents from Puebla, learned mole from his grandmother (because that, folks, is how it’s done). Ortega lives in Houston, Texas now, and after many years of nominations was recently gifted with a James Beard Award—the first Mexican-born chef to do so—for his sprawling collection of stunning restaurants in the area.
It all began in the early nineties at Backstreet Café, a casual local spot with a Southwestern vibe, where Ortega met his wife and business partner, Tracy Vaught. A few years later came Hugo's, and Caracol, which delves into the seaside cuisine of Mexico’s coastal cities; Xochi, an ode to the beloved foodscape of Oaxaca, and Origen, which is in Oaxaca itself. With the exception of Backstreet, mole features prominently on all of their menus.
“Cooks around the world [try to make] layers of flavor in search of the most exquisite one they can possibly build,” he says. “I can just picture my ancestors making mole and putting 19 ingredients together, believing they found what they were looking for.”
For many people, the intrigue surrounding mole are its components, namely the ingredients and how many are used. Sometimes there’s a method to the madness, and sometimes there isn’t. What’s in a particular mole depends on who makes it; there can be anywhere from five ingredients to 20. Some include nuts and chocolate, others rely heavily upon an abundance of peppers and fresh herbs. Another category altogether has components of both.
Ortega and his teams don’t pledge allegiance to any one preparation. The offerings vary as wildly as the backgrounds of the cooks who make them possible. There’s mole negro (Ortega roasts and grinds the chocolate for it in-house), verde, amarillo, de higo, and costeño, and, rarer in these parts, chicatana, which has a historical — and entomological — background.
The chicatana is an ant, a flying one, with small, transparent wings, that takes to the skies of Oaxaca after the first rain falls in the spring. A gastronomic treasure in Oaxaca dating back to the Mesoamerican era, chicatanas are typically washed, toasted and ground to a fine powder as a base for salsa.
A dozen or so ingredients make up Ortega’s homage, mole chicatana. Besides the ants, which Ortega sources directly from Oaxaca, there’s pasilla mixe, a chile variety that grows in Oaxaca, and pitonia, which is commonly referred to as bushy lippie, and fresh mint. The ultimate secret, per Ortega, is chicken broth. But not just any chicken broth — a perfectly plain chicken broth consisting of only chicken bones and water, simmered on low for about three hours.
Why? Concentration. Integrity. Zero distractions.
“You don’t want to interfere with the natural flavors of the chicatana, the pasilla mixe or the herbs,” Ortega said. “You want to make sure it’s as pure as possible as your base for the mole.”
Making mole is time-intensive not only because of gathering and prepping all the ingredients involved but also in the time it takes to deepen the flavor over hours, a process that can’t be rushed; Ortega estimates at least three to four hours total.
The day before, ingredients are gathered. Chiles are de-stemmed, toasted, and pureed. Onions, garlic, tomatoes and the herbs are cooked over the stovetop, then pureed. They reach a good stopping point, and the mole making resumes the next day with the addition of the chicken stock. It simmers away until the final step: frying the mole to remove any lingering bitterness. Then the mole, possessing a slight game meat flavor according to Ortega, is done.
Now, if you’ve done it right, the essence of what Ortega’s ancestors searched for as they cooked, as they created a meal, has been reached—mole chicatana, a silky-smooth sauce thick enough to coat the back of spoon and the color of caramel.
“The challenge is to be better than ever before,” he says. “Life is about innovation—and we’re in the hospitality business. It's the whole package.”