Saturday, May 19, 2012

Chocolate Chicken in Puebla

Just two hours from Mexico City, Puebla – the “City of Angels” – sits in a mountain valley surrounded by dramatic peaks and smoking, snow-capped volcanoes. Its gentle atmosphere owes much to its graceful colonial buildings, and visitors are kept busy photographing the magnificent architecture and eating mole poblano – this foodie city’s namesake dish.

Puebla’s immaculately preserved colonial architecture is arguably the best in Mexico, and has won the city UNESCO World Heritage status. Most of its 5,000 Spanish colonial buildings were built in the grand Baroque style of the 16th century, around graceful squares that found room for later additions in the 17th and 18th centuries. The magnificent cathedral dominates the main plaza, but the city also boasts the oldest library in the Americas, the Biblioteca Palafoxiana, and dozens of fascinating houses, convents, and churches. Domes crowd the skyline, pretty tiles line the walls and floors, and the gentle spray of fountains cools the many courtyards. Visitors browse for handicrafts in the markets or pottery workshops, or set off to wander the national parks, hike around the volcano, or visit the giant pyramid of Puebla’s neighboring town, Cholula.
But Puebla is also an industrialized modern city with a large university, and it has a real buzz about it.
There’s a thriving café and restaurant culture, and the city is famous for its wonderful food, especially mole poblano: chicken in a chili-pepper-and-chocolate sauce. This is the best-known of several mole (pronounced “MO-lay”) varieties and follows a complex recipe. The word mole comes from the indigenous ancient Aztec Náhuatl language, as do other more familiar words, such as avocado, tomato, and chocolate. Mole means something like “sauce”, so guacamole is a sauce of avocado. Poblano simply means “of Puebla.”
There are many interpretations of mole poblano, but the classic version comprises chicken breast covered in a voluptuous spicy sauce made of chili pepper and dark, unsweetened chocolate, subtly flavored with toasted seeds, dried fruits, corn, and spices, then left to bubble and reduce over many hours.
Top of the menu at any special occasion, mole poblano is synonymous with celebration, starring at all weddings and on national holidays. Puebla’s countless churches regularly host jubilant ceremonies and religious processions, which spill out onto the cobbled streets, making it impossible not to get caught up in this radiant city’s colorful, joyous atmosphere.

The towers of Puebla’s colonial cathedral overlook the main plaza, the Zócalo, which was built as a marketplace in 1531

The Best Places to Eat Mole Poblano

Sacristia de la Compañía

Undoubtedly one of the most upmarket dining options in Puebla, the eclectic Sacristia de la Compañía restaurant has two intimate rooms and a large patio, and offers a tasting menu alongside the à la carte list. Find it in the attractive Callejón de los Sapos – the same location as the weekend antique and flea market – in the historic center of the city. Part of a boutique hotel and antique shop (all the pieces on display are for sale, adding to the atmosphere) and housed in an 18th-century colonial mansion, the restaurant serves the best local and regional recipes and describes its mole poblano as the restaurant’s “host.” The Sacristia version of the classic dish is smokier and fierier thanks to charred chipotle (a smoked jalapeño pepper). You know you’re in good hands when the chef behind a restaurant also offers cooking lessons, as this one does, lasting either one, three, or seven days. The week-long course is part of a package that includes hotel accommodations (wonderfully romantic) and meals.
6 Sur No. 304, Callejón de los Sapos; open 10 AM–10:30 PM Mon–Sat, 10 AM–5 PM Sun;

Mole poblano de guajolote (turkey) is a variation that often crops up during Puebla’s Festival de Mole Poblano, held every July

Also in Puebla
The most central of the three lively Fonda de Santa Clara restaurants (; moderate) , on 3 Poniente, specializes in local dishes and ingredients, with mole poblano as the centerpiece, and has traditional music and decor.
Also in Mexico
Three hours south of Puebla, the beautiful colonial city of Oaxaca cannot of course boast mole poblano but is home to the so-called “seven moles of Oaxaca,” the most famous variety being mole negro. This should be jet-black in color due to the precise cooking (almost burning) of the ingredients. It uses six kinds of chili peppers and an array of nuts, dried fruit, seeds, and spices, as well as chocolate. The restaurant Como Agua Pa Chocolate (www.; moderate), named after the Mexican novel by the same name (Like Water for Chocolate), has a balcony overlooking the Alameda Park, and while undoubtedly somewhat touristy, serves good chicken mole with a choice of five colorful Oaxacan sauces.
Around the World
Authentically prepared mole poblano is difficult to find outside Mexico and the southwestern United States; however, the four London branches of “market eating” restaurant chain Wahaca (; moderate) do serve it enchilada-style with shredded chicken, using a recipe from Guanajuato, a picturesque town northwest of Mexico City.

What Else to Eat in Puebla

Considered to be the gastronomic center of Mexico, Puebla has a varied cuisine that blends pre-Hispanic, Arabic, East Asian, French, and Spanish influences. Alongside mole poblano, other nationally and internationally renowned dishes include chiles en nogada, stuffed chili peppers with walnut sauce traditionally garnished with pomegranate seeds to provide the three colors of the Mexican flag – red, green, and white. Another classic is pipián verde, a fantastically tasty green mole sauce made from a base of toasted pumpkin seeds and usually served over chicken or pork. More casual street food comes from Puebla’s covered food market, where cemitas – Mexican sandwiches – abound, with a dizzying array of possible fillings.
Cheese-lovers should make straight for the oozing, stringy delights of the quesadillas.
A Day in Puebla
Puebla is rich in art, architectural, and archaeological interest. The best shopping opportunities arise on a Saturday or Sunday.
MORNING : After a hearty breakfast of huevos rancheros (spicy eggs with tortillas), head for the antique and flea market in Callejón de los Sapos (“The Side Street of the Frogs”) to browse for quirky bargains.
Drop in to the nearby artists’ district of Barrio del Artista to buy an original piece from one of the residents, or some of the city’s famous blue-and-white pottery, known as talavera.
AFTERNOON : Visit Cholula, 10 miles (16 km) east of Puebla. This is an ancient Indian town (Puebla was wholly built by the Spanish) dating back to the earliest civilizations of Mexico. Climb the huge pyramid and catch your breath at the Iglesia de los Remedios church atop it to enjoy sweeping views of neighboring volcanoes.
Try a cup of popo, made of rice, cocoa, and chupipi fruit, on your way down, then explore the tunnels, crypts, and tombs beneath the pyramid.
EVENING : After all that activity, you’ll have earned a quiet supper.
Getting to Puebla
Puebla is 80 miles (125 km) from Mexico City, around two hours’ drive from the capital along a good highway via rental car or bus/coach. Its small airport receives international flights from Houston, TX, and domestic arrivals from Cancún.
Where to stay in Puebla
Hotel Colonial (inexpensive) is a friendly B&B near the main square.
Camino Real (moderate) is a beautifully restored convent in the city’s historic center.
La Purificadora (expensive), formerly a water purification factory, has been transformed by an architect into a contemporary design hotel – the pool is amazing.

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