La Morada (308 Willis Avenue, Bronx; 718-292-0235) is one of the most pleasant Mexican restaurants in the city. The space is cloaked in a noble purple, the kitchen emits aromas that quell the sharpest of cold-spring funks, and there are books by Paz and Plath in the lending library. The Saavedra-Mendez family, which runs the restaurant, is cheerful and gracious, and you’ll be charmed before the food arrives.
The owners are from the town of San Miguel Ahuehuetitlán, which is in the Mixtec region of northwestern Oaxaca. This is the land of seven moles, which contain dozens of regional idiosyncrasies. The moles ($12) at La Morada are a roulette of types — poblano, verde, negro, oaxaqueño, pipián, blanco — and the restaurant offers about three each day, each one an opportunity to taste a spectrum of flavor and technique elusive in New York City.
The menu is diverse. You’ll find solo diners nibbling chilaquiles and sipping pancita, a scarlet soup that prickles with heat. There are hefty quesadillas ($7), tostadas ($3), and enchiladas ($12), including one rolled around braised hibiscus flowers. Recently, I watched a man look lovingly down at the burrito he was served; raise his fork and knife in the air, pausing like a conductor about to begin a sonata; then commence eating.
The tlacoyo ($8) is more elaborate here than the flattened ovals of toasted masa you find on the street. Instead of a pocket of beans at the center, the legumes and their cooking liquid saturate the dough, adding flavor and body. It’s toasted until crisp, piled high with sliced nopales, bouncy cubes of panela cheese, cilantro, avocado, tomato and onion, lime and salt, all of which rise triumphantly from the plate. It’s a stunner.
But you came for the mole. The oaxaqueño is slightly sweet and shimmering with oil, a ballast of canela (cinnamon) pushing through the array of spices; it cloaks braised pork ribs. The green is enlivened with herbs and the tart zip of tomatillo. Mole blanco gets its luster from ground pine nuts, cashews, and almonds, and serves as a mild foil for a roasted and stuffed poblano pepper dotted with pomegranate seeds. The swarthy mole poblano is complexly balanced. All are served with hot, hand-pressed tortillas to wipe plates clean.
For dessert, there is pumpkin, released of its rind, though the seeds are intact, cooked to an atomic tangerine-colored pulp with brown-sugar-like piloncillo and a pinch of cinnamon. This is a rough, vegetal vine turned dulcet in capable hands.
Scarlett Lindeman is a Brooklyn-based writer, covering the city’s best taquerias, fondas, and cantinas. She writes the ¡Oye! Comida column for Fork in the Road.