Mole Poblano: True Mexican flavors, and some of the city's best tamales
"I was walking on 'The Nine' when I saw the sign: 'For Sale,' " said Javier Ríos. "And I instantly called my brother."
Ríos was speaking in Spanish and referring to the street - South Ninth Street - that has blossomed in the last decade into a boulevard of dreams for Mexican South Philly. And that is exactly what was playing out that day last spring when he inquired at Acapulco restaurant, whose owner wanted to sell. After consulting with his brother Pedro, with whom he works in the front of the house at Alma de Cuba, they decided it would be the perfect spot for their mom and dad's tamales to go legit.
Papá Pedro Ríos, 53, and his wife, Ynes Sandoval, 50, had already made a living plying the streets with his signature carnitas and her handmade tamales, selling to Mexican workers at a West Philly meatpacking plant, restaurants in Center City, and many other spots.
But neighbors had complained about the cooking smells of pork and chiles emanating from their South Philly home. So the Ríos family's move into official American commerce with a tidy taqueria called Mole Poblano (coincidentally on July 4) was a benefit to all.
It's even more beneficial if you rise early on weekend mornings, because that's what's required if you hope to taste some of the city's best tamales. Sandoval and Ríos begin at 5:30 a.m. on weekends, hand-mixing the masa corn flour with lard and a rich homemade stock of chicken and pork, folding that dough inside corn husks with various stuffings, and then setting them to steam.
The result, usually available between 8 and 10 a.m. (though they'll set some aside if you call ahead,) will look familiar to any regular tamale eater: a leaf-wrapped bundle of a dumpling studded with meat and tinted various shades of salsa.
The corn-flour cakes themselves were exceptional - remarkably fluffy without falling apart, and the flavorful base seemed to amplify their stuffings in vivid, earthy relief. Tender chicken was sauced with the emerald tang of tomatillos in a salsa verde. Moist shreds of pork basked in a cuminy, roasty spice salsa of rust-colored guajillo peppers. There was a meat-free tamale with stretchy white Oaxaca cheese, sweet bell peppers, onions and tomatoes, a variation called "rajas."
But the true tamale triumph here is the one painted black with mole, easily identified before unwrapping because the sauce's inky darkness showed through like zebra stripes underneath the husk. When I peeled the edges back and the steam hit our noses - that hot corn mingling with a mysterious dark sweet spice - my family's forks descended in a flurry until, moments later, it was a plate of coal-black crumbs: "Greatest thing ever," declared my 15-year-old girl.
The restaurant's namesake mole, which I'd have again later in more copious quantities - poured like a shadow over enchiladas, and ladled over fork-tender hunks of stewed bone-in chicken for the mole poblano platter - is translated directly from Sandoval's home of San Mateo Ozolco in the state of Puebla.
A large chunk of this small community on the slopes of the active Popocatépetl volcano moved to sub-Washington Street South Philly - a.k.a. "Puebladelfia" - in the mid-2000s. And expats will recognize the flavors that shape this bewitching mole, the usual sweetness of Mexican chocolate tempered by pasilla pepper spice, the fruit of bananas and raisins, the nuttiness of almonds and peanuts, thickened with animal crackers.
Is there a better mole in Philly? ¡Yo no lo creo!
I knew none of this when I first stumbled upon Mole Poblano in pursuit of Super Bowl frijoles. I'd been walking The Nine in a quest to assemble the ultimate seven-layer dip for the big-game party. I had nearly all I needed - the world's best chips from Tortilleria San Roman, fresh chorizo from Amigos, crumbly queso fresco from Lupita's. But my go-to for tacos al pastor, los Taquitos de Puebla, did not have refried beans. So they directed me across the street to the tidy, neon-lit little storefront fringed with colorful streamer banners.
Mole Poblano's refried beans - creamy and pink from a hand-mash, sweet with fried onions, and unexpectedly lard-free ("too much fat!" says Javier) - were so good they almost didn't make it to the party. Same for the guacamole, so simple and fresh, but vivid with cilantro and sparky chunks of jalapeño.
We knew we had to return for a proper meal, especially on weekends, when this friendly taqueria's 26 seats swell with the beat of Mexi-pop on the TV and a Mexican crowd that comes for the specials.
Most of the standard menu, overseen by Sandoval as well as kitchen chef Jose Elgin Ramos, is simple and well-done, from the hand-pressed sopes masa cups topped with flavorful chorizo to crispy tostada discs smeared with a thin layer of beans to anchor chipotle-sauced chicken tinga and a towering mound of shredded lettuce. The classic taco toppings - orange-tanged pork al pastor with pineapple; clove-scented plumes of pork carnitas; plancha-seared strips of tender tongue - are also good. Only the huevos rancheros eggs were terribly overcooked.
The weekend specials, though, distinguish this tidy tiled storefront from the many others. Chief among them is the barbacoa, made here with traditional goat (instead of the more common lamb) braised for hours with avocado leaves in a garlicky guajillo chile marinade resonant with oregano and ginger. Served with a chickpea-studded consommé made from the braising juices, the platter was especially soul-satisfying when I shredded the tender meat back into the broth with rice for a hearty soup.
The barbacoa is a weekend fixture. But other specials change, and some were memorable, like the dried fava bean soup whose starchy white broth was threaded with pickled cactus strips, or a rich shrimp stew filled with fresh crustaceans. Or the paper-thin but juicy carne asada, garlic-marinated sirloin topped with a paddle of snappy nopales cactus.
My favorite special, though, was a once-a-month chicken stewed in "cacahuete" salsa. The top-billed peanuts were actually subtle, thickening and enriching a cuminy, clovey, guajillo-fired chicken broth that was almost like mole's red-gravy cousin. And just as magnetic.
The Italian Market's main drag has evolved for more than a decade into a street of Mexican delights. But with the Ríos family's tamales and masterful mole now in the mix, walking along The Nine just got a bit more intriguing.