The influx of Mexican immigrants in the last decade—mostly from the mountainous southern states of Puebla, Guerrero, and Oaxaca—has yet to produce any great restaurants, though the hardworking émigrés are often spotted in New York’s most illustrious kitchens. Most Mexican cafés are just taquerías, places fit for a beer or two and a good taco, torta, or plate of chicken mole poblano, but not for the kind of ambitious meals that regional cooks are capable of. But gradually, the quality and scope of Mexican cooking in town have been inching up.
A case in point is a new café in mountainous Hamilton Heights, known on its awning as Mexico Dos. I wondered why a restaurant would name itself after an archaic piece of computer software, but that wasn’t why I went inside. A good earthy smell issued from the doorway, and the small room was suffused with an appealing warmth, partly a result of the pink walls. The menu touts Tex-Mex, perhaps in an attempt to emulate Fresco Tortilla Grill and its ilk, and indeed features decent burritos, fajitas, and chimichangas. But the real action is in the daily specials and especially the comidas diarias, which the menu characterizes as “authentic regional dishes from south Mexico.”
The essence of this cuisine is in the moles (“mole-ays”), ancient traditional sauces of astonishing complexity, rivaling French sauces in subtlety and in the skill required to produce them. While many taquerías simply pour moles out of cans, Mexico Dos creates them from scratch. The mole verde, for example, derives its bright color from a lively combination of green chiles, cilantro, and fresh tomatillos, further flavored with herbs largely unfamiliar to gringos, including epazote, which tastes something like creosote, and hoja santo, which imparts hints of anise and mint. You can have it with poached chicken or crisply fried pork rib; either way, the vast quantity of sauce will convince you that the mole is the meal.
My favorite use of green mole is in chilaquiles topped with two sunny-side-up eggs ($7). Chilaquiles are the Mexican answer to French toast, transforming stale tortillas into something wonderful by scrambling them with sauce and tossing on plenty of crema, crumbled queso fresco, and greenery. In a similar vein but soupier is machaca ($6.50), a breakfast favorite that’s named after its principal ingredient, a dried beef jerky. The shredded meat is jumbled with green salsa, onions, and bits of egg.
Just as formidable is the mole rojo, whose roster of ingredients includes sesame seeds, raisins, almonds, and several kinds of chiles, breezier and less ponderous than the chocolate mole poblano that has become almost too familiar at Mexican cafés. Mole pipian is another triumph, made with pumpkin seeds that have not been coarsely crushed as in the canned version, but ground to a fine powder, thickening the sauce only slightly while preserving its smooth texture. If you insist on tomatoes in your sauce, go right for pollo en chipotle ($7), which bathes the bird in a mild red fluid with little clumps of smoky brown chipotle chile, or adobo de pollo, which employs a vinegary red paste to coat the chicken before braising. This thick marinade (technically, it’s not a mole) inspired the national dish of the Philippines when both countries were Spanish colonies.
Tragically, the most obscure mole on the menu has never been available on my visits: huashimole, intriguingly described as “Traditional among Mexicans. Made with wild seed, salted huaje & dry pepper & sauce.” The waitress shook her head discouragingly the last time we ordered it, but when we asked her where it came from, she nodded enthusiastically and responded, “From Guerrero.”