When it was party time in San Juan Pilcaya, Maria Moso was the village’s go-to for pipián verde.
Whenever there was cause for celebration in her hometown of 1,000 or so in south central Puebla, every woman had a job to do. Maybe it was making tamales, or rice, or the state’s iconic brick-red mole poblano, but Moso was known for Puebla’s other great mole—and she was expected to prepare it (meanwhile, the men butchered and buried the goats for barbacoa).
At the Rogers Park restaurant Moso opened with her daughter Anay and her grandson, Daniel, it’s easy to see why. Whether it’s smothering a pair of herbaceous epazote-scented tamales de ceniza, or sharing the plate across a chicken leg from a mole poblano, it is memorably nutty and creamy from pumpkin seeds, tart from tomatillos, grassy from cilantro and epazote, and loaded with the slow vegetal sting of jalapeño. It’s a rich, olive-colored life force that’s best delivered to your mouth scooped in the warm embrace of the restaurant’s freshly pressed, char-stippled golden corn tortillas.
Daniel, who works the front of the house dressed like an ambassador from the campesinos, says that back home it is known that if you start cooking a mole, you have to be the one to finish it. If someone else steps in it’s bound to be ruined. At this seven-month-old storefront no one else gets near Maria’s mole. “She’s the one with the magic touch,” says Daniel. For about 20 years Maria Moso’s magic touch was employed in the fast-food industry. Same with Anay. As for Daniel, he got his start running tables down the street at Andersonville’s M. Henry, and then worked in the bar program at Cruz Blanca for three years, running cocktails and pouring mezcal flights, before taking a year off in Puebla to get a taste of the food he grew up on at its origins.
About two years ago, Maria, Anay, Daniel, and his stepfather Fernando started a small catering business, making quesadillas and pambazos on a parillada, a portable gas- powered grill. Pambazos, the guajillo-drenched potato-and-chorizo sandwiches, are a specialty of Mexico City (where Fernando is from). The business flourished for over a year and half. Then the family decided to open a brick-and-mortar spot focusing on the food from their home, which in 2017 achieved a bitter notoriety as the epicenter of an earthquake that took most of the town’s buildings.
Daniel adopts a term used in the marketing of mezcal to describe what the Moso family is doing to set themselves apart from the thousands of Mexican restaurants around town: “single village.” Usually that means a spirit distilled by a single producer or family from a specific village. Here he means it’s reflective of not just San Juan Pilcaya, but the towns around it that subsist crucially on corn— specifically yellow corn.
Wherever you find them in Chicago, freshly made tortillas are a treasure. Mostly they’re made from white corn masa, but the Mosos believe the yellow masa they get delivered every day from Pilsen’s Tortilleria Atotonilco is closest to what they ate back home. Pressed and griddled fresh off the flattop, these heavenly light circles of sunshine emit a sweet aroma that penetrates whatever gray, bewildering fog is clouding your thoughts.
This masa is ideal for recreating the picaditas everyone eats for breakfast before heading into the fields, accompanied by champurrado, that same masa in liquid form, seasoned with cinnamon, chocolate, and raw unrefined piloncillo. Otherwise known as sopes, picaditas are flat ovoids thicker and sturdier than tortillas, with soft centers and upturned edges that are crispier and chewier, and contain reservoirs of red or green salsa, crumbled, just-melted queso fresco, and, if you choose, practically superfluous proteins. The same masa is dried and rehydrated to form the quesadillas upon which the restaurant is built; stuffed with chicken tinga, mushrooms, and squash blossoms, or fresh, fluffy house-made requesón cheese scented with epazote, which grows wild at home and is the unmistakable olfactory signature of more than a few dishes on El Sabor Poblano’s focused menu.
While the picaditas are hearty and filling and just the things to sustain you through your labors, the quesadillas balloon when they’re deep-fried, and perform like airy, delicately crisp empanadas, inviting you to gorge on them like you have nothing else to do all day.
Corn haunts you like a ghost in the days after you’ve eaten at El Sabor Poblano. The memory of the tortillas will intrude on your thoughts, whether you’ve swiped them through a pool of seven-chile mole poblano, or used them to rip chunks of barbacoa off the bone, the sweetly fragrant goat meat perfumed with the avocado leaves from home that it’s steamed with. It also inhabits the deeply flavored consommé made from the same goat meat, thickened with rice and chickpeas.
These dishes, due to their labor intensity, are available only on the weekends. Same goes for the chicken soup, colored like a red dwarf star from guajillo chiles, and redolent of the epazote announcing its presence from across the room.
In service of other unforgettable aromas, the Mosos also spend a lot of time on Fridays pulling guaje seeds out of their long and transparently thin green pods. The legumes, which are commonly used in salsas or mixed with scrambled eggs, are here crushed to thicken a deep-green beef soup called guasmole, layering an already herbal-intensive brew with an aroma that approaches something like mint and lemongrass.
The Mosos open early for customers to fuel up on picaditas and champurrado, and they stay busy all day long, serving tamales, tacos dorados (aka flautas), and enchiladas with mole. The pambazos notwithstanding, the menu stays resolutely focused on the kind of things you’d eat every day (or on holidays) in San Juan Pilcaya. Things haven’t slowed down since their opening day when they went through about 200 pounds of masa. And just because they now operate a restaurant, that doesn’t mean they’ve left their catering days behind. They’re booked all summer for evening parties, where people still clamor for quesadillas and pambazos, but now also expect to be served freshly made tortillas and Maria Moso’s magic pipián verde, untouched by anyone else. v