Food & Drink

You Gotta Try This: Time-tested mole recipe from Oaxaca might be the best in Sacramento

Have you tried the ‘most delicious mole in Sacramento’?

“When I make my mole I feel very happy because I know people are going to enjoy it,” said Arturo Vargas, whimsical chef/owner of Casa Tulum restaurant in June 2019 in East Sacramento. His dish was nominated by Bee readers for “You Gotta Try This.”
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“When I make my mole I feel very happy because I know people are going to enjoy it,” said Arturo Vargas, whimsical chef/owner of Casa Tulum restaurant in June 2019 in East Sacramento. His dish was nominated by Bee readers for “You Gotta Try This.”

This is “You Gotta Try This,” The Bee’s series featuring one particular must-have dish at a local restaurant. Each featured dish is nominated by a reader. Got a menu item you want to shine some light on? Email reporter Benjy Egel at begel@sacbee.com.

“Hey guys. What’s cooking?” chef/owner Arturo Vargas greeted his lunchtime customers as they approached Casa Tulum’s counter. “Do you like mole negro?”

Anyone who knows about the 3-month-old restaurant in a 111-year-old converted yellow Victorian by Alhambra Boulevard and S Street knows about the mole (pronounced moe-lay). Served over chicken or enchiladas, the dark, rich, slightly spicy sauce is arguably the signature item on a menu that pulls dishes from across Mexico.

“One visit and I’m hooked. Chef Arturo prepares the finest mole negro that tastes like you’re in Oaxaca,” wrote one reviewer. “Best mole in Sacramento and to be honest I’ve never had better mole in California,” wrote another.

A mix of peppers, spices and often chocolate, mole’s origin traces back to the Mexican states of Puebla or Oaxaca, depending which story you believe. Mole poblano is the most commonly found variety countrywide; in mountainous Oaxaca, nicknamed “the land of seven moles,” the darker mole negro reigns.

Vargas starts his mole negro by stripping the seeds and veins from seven types of chilis: mulato, chili negro, morita, chilis de arbol, New Mexico, California and guajillo. He toasts the peppers for two minutes on each side on medium-high heat along with margarine, cinnamon sticks, cumin, cloves and pumpkin seeds, then blends the mixture with chicken broth.

Vargas then dumps the solution into a pan over medium-high flames and adds sugar, salt and Nestle Abuelita chocolate, heating it for about 10 minutes until it starts bubbling. After adding a little more chicken broth, the mole cools for another 10 minutes before being served.

The low-carb option is served over dark meat chicken boiled with garlic, salt and a half onion ($18); enchiladas are stuffed with grilled light meat chicken seasoned in a garlic-lime-jalapeno marinade ($14).

Sourcing the ingredients can take up to two hours as Vargas drives to La Superior Mercados, Mi Rancho and other Mexican supermarkets around Sacramento. He started cooking mole more than 30 years ago at his mother’s side, he said, then developed his own recipe while attending culinary school in Oaxaca.

“It’s a beautiful process. When I make my mole, I feel very happy and I know people are going to enjoy it,” Vargas said.

Vargas immigrated to the U.S. in 1986 and worked as a cook at Fog City Diner and Bix in San Francisco prior to enrolling in another round of culinary school in 1992. He cooked in a Marriott for seven years before moving to Sacramento with his two children and his wife Martha, all of whom work at Casa Tulum, as well as Martha’s sisters.

From there, Vargas spent 10 years cooking nutritionist-selected meals for Latinos with chronic illnesses as part of a UC Davis study. He hosted cooking classes for CalFresh participants through the Yolo County Office of Education while maintaining a catering business he and the rest of the family still run out of Casa Tulum.

The Vargases own land in Tulum, the Yucatan beach town where Arturo and Martha plan to eventually build a house and retire. For now, the brightly colored Casa Tulum on Alhambra Boulevard will do.

Casa Tulum

1914 Alhambra Blvd., (916) 996-2879

Info: https://www.facebook.com/restaurantcasatulum/

Hours: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday

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Benjy Egel covers local restaurants and bars for The Sacramento Bee as well as general breaking news and investigative projects. A Sacramento native, he previously covered business for the Amarillo Globe-News in Texas.
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