Holy Mole

Las Palomas Serves Up the Real Thing

by Patrick Earvolino

Mole poblano, or "mole"

(pronounced "molay") as the name is abbreviated in Texas, is arguably the most exalted gastronomic delight in Mexico. Regarded as the country's unofficial national dish, the rich purée of chiles, nuts, chocolate, and myriad secondary ingredients was invented in a Conquest-era monastery in the state of Puebla (poblano means "from Puebla"), and its assimilation of New and Old World ingredients and cooking techniques has come tosymbolize the culinary birth of the mestizaje, the merging of Spanish and indigenous cultures. To find a truly exquisite mole poblano, you could hop a bus and scour the luncheonettes of south central Mexico, the heartland of mole country. Or you could get into your car and drive over to Las Palomas restaurant in Westlake.

Hidden in the back corner of the West Woods mall, across the street from the Randall's on Bee Caves Rd., Las Palomas has been quietly serving Austin authentic Interior Mexican cuisine since 1983. The restaurant is owned and operated by Amelia and Javier Corona, formerly of Mexico City, and managed by their daughter, Mari Carmen Dale. The family has drawn upon the cosmopolitan flavor of its native city to create a menu featuring a wide variety of Mexican cuisine, from an extensive selection of interior favorites like the mole, to a smattering of border staples sure to please those with a hankering for Tex-Mex.

The Coronas say that many of their customers have become friends over the years, and this is evidenced by the restaurant's laid-back character. The tone is set by the maitre d', Javier, whose table visits and amiable demeanor foster a comfortable atmosphere, and the mood is sustained by a competent, easygoing wait staff. The restaurant's decor does suffer a bit from strip-mall malaise; the walls are stark and the bamboo chairs too low for some of the glass-top tables (on one of my visits I felt like Tattoo waiting for Mr. Rourke to enter the room cradling a couple of Mai Tais). But these shortcomings are overshadowed by the amicable ambiance.

In the style of traditional Mexican restaurants, Las Palomas offers an assortment of soups to start the meal. The best of these is the simple yet satisfying chicken consommé ($2.95), a Mexican standard of rice and chicken in a light, flavorful broth. Every Mexican cook has her or his own preferred condiments for the soup, and the Coronas' accent of lime and cilantro worked nicely (although heat lovers might want to request some chopped chile serrano). Also noteworthy was the family's version of the famous chicken-chipotle soup, Caldo Tlalpeño ($3.95). By substituting a thick tomato base for the usual thin chicken stock and using ample chile chipotle, the Coronas have given a tasty twist to a Mexican classic.

The menu's starters also reflect a gringo influence. Unlike in Mexico, where "salad" often refers to a small garnish of shredded lettuce or cabbage, Las Palomas offers several interesting plates of greens. These include the popular Fajita Salad ($7.95, also available al chipotle), a flour taco shell filled with a generous portion of seasoned chicken strips, vegetables, and cheese atop a bed of beans, as well as chicken and chef salads for diners not in the Mexican mood. On the other hand, Tex-Mex freaks need not fear being shut out, either, as there are a number of border-style appetizers and snacks such as nachos, quesadillas, chile con queso, tostadas, and soft flour tacos to choose from, all for $5-7.

Beyond the first courses, the menu becomes almost exclusively Interior Mexican, and this is the area in which the restaurant most excels. The mole is available ladled over chicken or cheese enchiladas ($6.95), but I recommend it served atop a sizable boneless, skinless chicken breast ($9.25). The reddish brown sauce smothering the chicken struck a perfect balance of spice and texture, blending chile, chocolate, and cinnamon without the bitterness and bits of chile skin that ruin so many moles. With a few a corn tortillas and pickled jalapeños, the Coronas' mole con pollo tasted like lunch in Mexico City.

If you're curious about Yucatecan food, on the other hand, then you might want to try the Cochinita Pibil ($9.95). The dish of shredded pork cooked in achiote and topped with pickled onions was a fine example of the distinctive flavor of Mexico's Carribbean peninsula. (But watch out; it is heavy here.)

Due west of Yucatán, across the Gulf, lies Vera Cruz, a land renowned throughout Mexico for its seafood, in particular its marinara sauce, salsa veracruzana. Served over a fish filet or six butterflied shrimp ($10.25), the Coronas' scrumptious mild sauce of tomatoes, olives, capers, and herbs certainly did justice to the reputation of its namesake state. And on the spicy side, the Pescado al Chipotle ($9.95) -- a broiled filet of orange roughy in a fine chipotle-based sauce seasoned with garlic and parsley -- is a good choice for fans of the sacred smoked jalapeño.

Dessert may present a pleasant dilemma for those accustomed to the stereotypical Mexican menu. The mango mousse ($2.50) was tart, creamy, and delicious. Served warm with honey and cinnamon, the sopapillas ($2.50 for two; with ice cream, $3.75) were also exceptional. But I'd have to give the nod to the homemade flan ($2.50). Draped with Grand Marnier, the rich, dense treat drummed up memories of lazing in a town square somewhere south of the border, listening to the mariachis and sipping Nescafe, eating each wiggly sliver of the custard-like dessert ever so slowly.

This recollection crystallizes the appeal of the Coronas' restaurant: The venue offers a genuine taste of Mexico amid a cozy, convivial atmosphere. And it has been doing so for nearly 13 years, making it both pioneer and champion of the Mexican food revolution. So if you're interested in tasting food as it is prepared in the heart of Mexico but don't feel like taking a 15-hour bus ride, check out Las Palomas. Did I mention they serve a great mole?

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