Seventeen different types of mole participated in the 15th annual "Mole to die for" contest. Photo by Pedro Cota.

San Francisco might have had the worst air quality in the world on Friday, but that didn’t keep 140 mole enthusiasts from attending the 15th annual “Mole to Die for” contest.

First, let’s make sure we’re talking about the same thing. It’s mole, pronounced “moe-lay,” a sauce that is one of the staples of Mexican cuisine. It is made from a wide variety of chiles and spices, and it typically includes nuts and chocolate.

There are probably as many variations of the sauce as there are stars in the universe, but on Friday, 17 cooks showcased their recipes at the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts.

Around 5:30 p.m., crockpots and clay pots, each with their own mole, made their arrival to the second floor of the cultural center, where each participant set up their area on a U-shaped set of tables.

Such was the care given by the cooks and volunteers to each pot that it seemed they were handling a precious vessel recovered from an archeological dig.

One of the contestants, María Mendoza, sat at the number 10 spot on the table, keeping guard over her mole as other contestants set up next to her.

Contestants Maria Mendoza (far left) and Juan Antonio González (far right) wait alongside event volunteers before the start of the tasting. Photo by Pedro Cota.

“It’s my first time participating,” said Mendoza. “A friend of mine told me about the event not too long ago. As the days got closer, I said, I’m going to do it.’” Mendoza dressed for the occasion by wearing her traditional black Mexican blouse embroidered with brightly colored flowers.

It took four hours for Mendoza to prepare the sauce made from 15 to 20 ingredients. “Mole is very laborious,” she said, “there are many ingredients, and all of them have to be toasted.”

She used her family’s mole ranchero recipe as the basis for her entry, but added her own twist. “Mole ranchero is usually very spicy, but I didn’t make it too spicy, thinking that there might be some people who don’t like spicy food. Maybe I made a mistake by doing that, but it’s already done,” she said.

Next to Mendoza sat José Antonio González, contestant number nine, with a small, cylindrical stainless-steel pot. “It takes a lot of time to make, so I only made a little,” said González who worried the amount might not be enough for everyone to taste.

“It’s an 80-year-old recipe,” he said. “My family had a restaurant in Mexico City for 80 years, and I kept the recipe.”

The 51-year-old contestant said that he practically grew up in his family’s restaurant, Las Enchiladas on Niños Héroes Avenue in the Doctores neighborhood of the Mexican capital.

Thanks to its mole, he said “It was very successful for many years.” He expected his entry to fare well on Friday night; whenever he has a big party, his friends ask, “Will there be mole?”

It took three days for González to complete his recipe, because he doesn’t make mole into a paste like it’s typically done. “I make it into a powder, and I don’t have a grinder. In Mexico you use a grinder, but not here, so it’s very difficult to make,” said the first-time contestant.

Gonzalez’s entry was a mole Poblano. “Poblano” means the recipe is from the Puebla region of Mexico, just 80 miles east of Mexico City. “It’s between sweet and spicy. The sweetness of the chocolate contrasts with the spiciness of the chile.”

Another region that is known for its mole recipes is the state of Oaxaca, located on the southwestern coast of Mexico.

“There are seven different types of recognized mole in Oaxaca, but we have two main ones: black and red,” said Isaí Cuevas, contestant number 12. “This time I made the red one or ‘coloradito.’”

Cuevas, who is from a town called Zimatlán in the central valley of Oaxaca, proudly described the cultural importance of the dish in his home town.

Contestant Isaí Cuevas from Zimatlán Oaxaca accompanied by his wife and daughter. Photo by Pedro Cota.

“This is one of the moles I grew up with. In weddings, mole is served. The day after the wedding, mole is served again,” he said. “When someone dies, on the second day after the passing, the family will invite you to have ‘coloradito’ enchiladas for breakfast.”

Cuevas, who moved to San Francisco 14 years ago, began working as a dishwasher at a restaurant. “I started to like the fast-paced activity of the cooks and I slowly got into the kitchen,” he said. Cuevas went on to become sous chef at Epic Steak restaurant under chef Jan Birnbaum, then became executive chef at Liverpool Lil’s.

Cuevas attributes a lot of his success to his wife. “She played a very important role. She always pushed me to take risks and venture into being in charge of a restaurant.” Now they both own their own catering business called Tamalitos.

Cuevas’ line of work came in handy when preparing for the event. “I have the fortune to work in an industrial kitchen,” he said. Despite this advantage, it took him all day to prepare his ‘coloradito’ sauce because “you have to toast every single item individually,” he said.

His choice for ‘coloradito’ is a strategy based on its subtlety and versatility of flavors. “I like this one because, in my personal taste, the black mole is a little stronger in flavors and this one is lighter. You can eat it with practically anything.”

Contrary to Cuevas, Maricela Martínez, contestant 14, opted for the black mole from Oaxaca. “This recipe is from the town where my husband is from. Huajuapan de León,” she said. “This mole is natural, almost organic. It has chile puya, guajillo, and the chocolate is made from scratch using cacao,” she added.

Martínez who is a social worker in San José, said that once she retires she wants to dedicate herself to cooking Oaxacan food full-time.

As Martínez made the finishing touches to her table, a battle was brewing next to her between Linette Morales and Jerry Lucas, contestants 15 and 16, respectively.

“I was his assistant last year,” said Morales. “This year I said, you know what, I’m going to make my own. It’s the battle of the sexes,” she added jokingly. Morales dedicated two days to make her own version of the traditional mole rojo, or red mole. “It’s a family recipe. It’s savory and very secret, I can’t say more than that,” teased Morales.

“Battle of the sexes” contenders Jerry Lucas and Linette Morales. Photo by Pedro Cota.

Lucas, another professional chef with 25 years’ experience, has participated twice before and came in second place both times, with black and green moles. This time he made a variation of mole rojo presented in a 49ers crockpot that perfectly matched his outfit. “It’s an apricot and pine nuts mole,” said Lucas.

“He stole some of my peppers,” interjected Morales, followed by a competitive, “Oh, it’s on!” that resonated across the large room.

Across from Morales and Lucas, María Vazquez, contestant Number 5, was asked to step away from her mole and allow volunteer Martin Scott to watch over her spot. Cooks were not allowed to serve their mole — an effort to keep their charm from swaying the judges.

As the cooks began to step away from their areas, the defending champion Antonio Perete, adjusted his molcajete, a volcanic rock mortar, filled with the raw ingredients used for his recipe as a decorative accent.

“We make it like a hybrid,” said Perete of his mole. “It’s a mixture of Oaxacan mole and Puebla mole.”

By 6:30 p.m., a line of about 50 people started to form at station number one. Each attendee received a tiny numbered plastic cup with each of the 17 sauces with hues that ranged from green, to dark black with reds and oranges in between. At the end of station 17, a volunteer handed out a tally sheet. “It’s a democratic process. Everybody will choose their top three choices,” said Guillermo Ornelas, the master of ceremonies for the night.

“Ya nos corrieron” (they kicked us out of the tables), joked María Mendoza, the one who made her less-spicy version of mole ranchero. As she watched the crowd of people lining up to have a taste, she shared her thoughts on the event. “It’s very beautiful and important to learn different flavors of our Mexico,” she said. “I want to try all of them too. That’s what made me come here, to learn different things. I just think I’m going to have to wait until the end because there’s so many people,” she said.

As people received their samples, they made their way to the back room where dining tables were set up.

Toward the back of the room, Barry Becker and his partner Mario Cabrera, began making their selections.

“So far, one, two, and a distant third six. But none are as good as his mother’s,” said Becker, pointing to Cabrera.

“We have a very specific taste in mole,” added Becker, who said he and his partner have been coming to the event for 10 years. “Too sweet, it gets canceled. Too much chocolate, it gets canceled. If it doesn’t have enough of a kick, if it’s too American tasting, it gets canceled,” he added with a stern tone worthy of a professional food critic.

Cabrera seemed to have a more playful approach to the tasting. “I like the spicy one, that will replace this one,” he said as he switched around his podium of moles.

Becker continued with the rigorous process of elimination. “Ten is good,” he said and took another try of Mendoza’s mole ranchero.

Oh my god! You see the consistency? It sticks together, but it still pours out. You can taste the cacahuates and almonds.”

When asked if he would participate with his mother’s recipe, Cabrera said he would probably let Becker do it. “I’ll just pay people to tell him it’s really good,” he said. “We’ve talked about it,” replied Becker.

Across from Becker and Cabrera, a group of young mole tasters talked to each other about their findings.

One of them, Mauricio Yañez, is in the competition but refused to give out his contestant number. “I am not voting for my number. I am being fair,” he said.

“I don’t even know what his number is,” said Darwin Cruz, who came to support Yañez.

“I haven’t even told my friends which number is mine,” explained Yañez who didn’t want his friends to be biased.

“This is grandma’s recipe,” he said of his mole. “It has a touch of xoconoztle (prickly pear),” he revealed. “It’s like when you use lemon to lift up the flavors, except lemon cuts the sauce, and xonocoztle doesn’t.”

The rest of the guests filled the tasting room where they made their deliberations. Some sat on the tables in the room decorated with papel picado left over from a Day of the Dead exhibit, others preferred to sit with their group of friends on the floor.

Between drinking Tecate and Corona beers, and eating beans, rice and chicken that was also sold at the event, the attendees filled out their ballots and dropped them in a clear lockbox. The dinner experience was highlighted by traditional music from the Mexican state of Veracruz played by Azúcarada, a duo that includes Monica Fimbrez and Cassandra Millspaugh.

Attendees enjoyed mole samples, drinks and food in the event’s tasting room. Photo by Pedro Cota.

For almost an hour, Fimbrez and Millspaugh played their small guitars called jaranas that make the distinctive sound of the son jarocho and, as is tradition, took turns singing each of the verses of their songs.

As the votes were being counted, José Antonio González who used the recipe from his family’s restaurant acknowledged the stiff competition and reflected on possible next steps. “Maybe I came to share it at the wrong time with so many good moles,” he said as he tried one of his competitor’s entries. “I really want to keep this up. I’m trying to revive the recipe. It has already been around for 80 years and I want to pass it on to my children, so it can live up to 150 years or more I hope.”

Isaí Cuevas, from Tamalitos catering, reflected on the importance of Latino labor in the food industry as he waited for the results. “Behind every great American chef, there is always a Latino background,” he said. He hopes that more Hispanic/Latino dishwashers are encouraged to grow in the business like he did. “I tell all Latinos that we need to change our mentality of conformity,” he added, noting that he tries show them that moving up is possible.

Cuevas’ attention suddenly shifted to the master of ceremonies, who walked to the podium with the results in hand.

The entire room listened attentively as Guillermo Ornelas announced the winners, starting with third place, which went to Antonia Alva. She accepted her $100 award and certificate with her young daughter.

Only four votes made the difference between Alva and the defending champion, Antonio Perete who, this time, took second place and $200.

Finally, after waiting for almost two-and-a-half hours, the winner of the 15th annual “Mole to Die for” contest was announced.

It was the black mole from Oaxaca that took the $300 prize. Maricela Martínez was all smiles as she walked up with her 7-year-old son to accept her award.

First place Maricela Martínez and son, second place Antonio Perete and third place Antonia Alva and daughter accept their awards. Photo by Pedro Cota.

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