Mole Poblano Goes Mainstream: Cosi’s Sandwich Fail


Cosi’s bread looks like an alligator, or maybe tree bark.

Those of us who fervidly celebrate the joys of immigrant cooking and its eventual assimilation into the standard American diet―think tortilla chips and guacamole, beef stroganoff, wonton soup, and IKEA’s bouncy Swedish meatballs―may still be occasionally dismayed at the way certain dishes enter our collective gastronomic vernacular. One such discouraging example is Cosi Sandwich Bar’s new chicken mole sandwich.

Feta cheese in a Mexican sandwich?

“Mole” or “mole poblano” are the accepted names for a 19th-century Mexican sauce that originated in the city of Puebla, supposedly invented by nuns. But new as it may be in Aztec years, mole poblano is very much in the style of ancient, Pre-Columbian moles, containing multiple dried chiles sometimes still ground in a metate, native desert herbs of alarming pungency, nuts, and a touch of chocolate, adding sweetness and bitterness simultaneously to one of the grandest sauces in North America. (The sweetness comes from the form in which the chocolate is often used: ground-up hot-cocoa discs, which also contain raw sugar and pulverized nuts.)

Gringas and gringos have been enjoying this sauce in American urban areas for many decades, and it has also assimilated with Tex-Mex, too, probably because the sauce has long since become a countrywide Mexican staple. Even more recently, New Yorkers
have had easy access to mole tamales from vending trucks and the occasional female entrepreneur who surreptitiously sells them from a shopping cart. And you can get mole enchiladas at dozens of places in all five boroughs.

Yes, mole was destined to a hit here. Who doesn’t love chocolate, and this savory usage is nearly unique.

On not-very-interesting flatbread something like tree bark, Cosi’s chicken mole sandwich oozes avocado, pulled chicken, black beans, cilantro, kernels of bright yellow corn, and–very odd man out–feta cheese. The sandwich is really not bad, but the red sauce on the chicken (described as “adobo”), is far from being any kind of mole, let alone the richly textured and midnight brown mole poblano. The sauce on Cosi’s sandwich serves as mere lubricant, and it falsely appropriates the name of something much, much better.

This is what real mole looks like (note the deep color), from the Upper East Side’s Lupita’s.