A Taste of Puebla

puebla

Angela’s Mole Poblano Will Take the Bite Out of Winter
by Steve Holt
Photographs by Katie Noble

A painted sign in the dining room of Angela’s Café reads “Mi Casa es Su Casa”—my house is your house. Over the doorway into the kitchen, another colorful sign reads “Mi Cocina es Mi Cocina”—my kitchen is my kitchen. To dine at Angela’s is to understand that while the 67-year-old chef treats each patron as a guest in her own home, she’s the one who runs the culinary show behind the scenes.

And like other Mexican cooks of her generation, she learned from the best: madre. It was 1951 when Dolores Lopez began teaching her 8-year-old Angela generations of cherished family recipes. No measuring cups or spoons, not a word written down. Just a mother showing her daughter how to cook the Puebla way—measuring only by taste and feel and with the recipes written only in her memory. Dolores taught Angela how to make every dish she knew: Sopa Azteca. Tacos Arabe. Mexican flan. And, of course, Mole Poblano.  “Mother was tough,” she says in Spanish, her son Luis translating.

“Her philosophy was to do it the right way or don’t do it at all.”

Angela took her mother’s perfectionism and at 20 years old opened her own restaurant in Puebla.Mole Poblano was the her signature dish then, and today, with almost a half-century and 2,262 miles separating then and now, Angela is still cooking her mother’s mole—in East Boston, of all places. Tucked away in that neighborhood by the airport, Angela’s Café has been pleasing eaters from all over the metro area for the last three years. “What we offer is authentic Poblano cuisine,” Angela says.

In the Mexican State of Puebla, Angela’s birthplace, Mole Poblano is a centerpiece of hospitality and culture. Though stories about the origin of Mexican mole (pronounced MO-lay) are as varied as its ingredients, one popular legend (the one Angela learned growing up) traces its history back to a Puebla convent in the 16th century. Panicked about what to cook for the visiting archbishop, nuns at the Convent of Santa Rosa prayed for inspiration. As legend has it, an angel visited the sisters and sent them into a frenzy of chopping, grinding and roasting. They threw a selection of peppers into a pot with spices, day-old bread, nuts, a smidge of chocolate and approximately 20 other ingredients, and boiling for hours, the concoction was reduced to the sauce we know today: thick, sweet, rich and fragrant mole.

The nuns served the sauce over turkey, the only meat they had available.  When the archbishop tasted the mysterious new dish, legend has it he was quite pleased. Today, mole is the unofficial Mexican dish for holidays and feasts, and on occasion it is even served over turkey.  Simmering on Angela’s stove is a five-gallon vat of the crimson sauce, the recipe Dolores gave her and likely similar to the one the archbishop ate in Puebla centuries ago—minus the day-old bread. She cooks one of these vats about every three days to keep up with the demand for her most popular dish. In a few hours, Angela will ladle the sauce over plate after plate of chicken, pork, chiles rellenos and enchiladas for her dinner guests. As I stand in the kitchen with the mole nearly completed, its fragrance is intoxicating.

Hours before, Angela’s mole starts with the freshest ingredients. Luis Garcia, the younger of Angela’s two sons and the restaurant’s manager, says peppers that meet Angela’s standards can be difficult to find in Boston, but cutting corners while shopping is never an option. “You have to buy the right thing,” he says. “You have to cook it like it’s for you—otherwise, don’t do it.”

She begins by blending a mixture of grilled and fried chiles—pasillas, chipotles, mulatos and anchos. Then, she fries and blends raisins, almonds, garlic, onions, plantains and a number of spices. Combining the fruit and nut mixture with the chiles creates a paste with the consistency of coffee grounds. Having blended the paste with water, Angela strains the sauce into a five-gallon pot until it’s three-quarters full.  The chunk of Abuelita Mexican dark chocolate isn’t added until the pot is boiling, and the sauce is ready when it takes on its characteristic dark brown hue.

Just how good is Angela’s mole? So good I could drink it by itself.  Not wanting to be rude, I cover a bite of tender pork with the sauce and put it in my mouth. The sweetness of the chocolate is what hits first, followed by a slight spiciness that waits about a minute to tickle my throat. It’s the savory blend of seasonings and peppers, though, that makes Angela’s mole irresistible, and lest anyone thinks they can replicate it in their own kitchen, remember that the identities and amounts of many of those 50 or 60 ingredients reside solely in the head of one Angela Lopez—and she isn’t saying much (except to her assistant Jaime Castillo, who has been taking a more central role of late.)

Word travels fast about great food. Luis says he still remembers the restaurant’s first word-of-mouth customer three years ago, a guy from South Boston wearing a suit who came into the restaurant alone on a mission for mole.

But word-of-mouth was just the beginning. Then came buzz about Angela’s on Internet sites like Yelp and Chowhound. The Friday night after one of the city’s dailies published a glowing review, scores of people—Luis estimates at least 150—filled Angela’s tiny dining room and lined up down the street. The steady business hasn’t stopped since.  Given the success (and smallness) of the restaurant’s current location, expansion is inevitable—either at the current location or a second site.  A number of customers have approached Luis with suggestions of possible locations throughout Boston.

To these well-meaning patrons, Luis just smiles and responds the same way: “There’s only one Angela.”

Angela’s Café
131 Lexington Street
East Boston, MA 02128
617-567-4972
www.angelascaferestaurant.com

Steve Holt’s only birthday party growing up was Mexican themed. He thinks they had soft tacos and tostadas. If he’d been aware o fMole Poblano at that time, it would have been on the menu. A freelance writer living in East Boston, Steve is reachable at steve@thebostonwriter.com.