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Whenever I’m in Oaxaca and Puebla, which never seems to be often enough, I eat mole until I burst. And then I find a way to pack more. I like to try different restaurants and go to stores, taste different varieties and buy them to take home.
THE MAGICAL DRAWING OF SAN PEDRO ATOCPAN
I had assumed that these two cities were mole centers in Mexico. So I was more than surprised to learn that San Pedro Atocpan, a beautiful pueblo in the southeast corner of Mexico City, is considered the mole capital of the country.
Not only is it famous for its mole, Pueblo also has a mole market for most of October. There was no doubt where I would spend that month.
San Pedro is part of Milpa Alta, one of the largest and most rural areas in Mexico. It is also one of the indigenous places where people have preserved their customs.
Many speak Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs (Atocpan in Nahuatl means “on fertile soil”). Because of its original culture, San Pedro is named Barrio Mágico, the magical neighborhood.
According to Luís Gutierrez Romero, who has documented life in San Pedro for decades, San Pedro became famous for its mole in the mid-1940s. That’s when people started selling it in the markets of Mexico City. From there, his popularity grew.
THE BEGINNING OF MEASURES IN MEXICO
The mole had humble beginnings. In pre-Hispanic times, the natives prepared a simple sauce consisting of chili peppers and two or three other ingredients. There is disagreement as to when mole was turned into the delicious sauce it is today.
Some sources claim it originated in the 17th century, while others claim it was developed a hundred years earlier. But all agree that the mole originated in the monasteries of Puebla.
According to one legend, a nun from the convent of Santa Rosa created Mexico’s most famous salsa, another legend says she was a monk. Personally, I’m not too concerned about when it was first done or who did it first. I’m just glad someone did.
According to estimates, there are more than 200 species of moles in Mexico. Each recipe has at least 20 ingredients, including different chilies (ancho, mullato, pasillo), spices (cloves, cinnamon, anise, rosemary), nuts (piñon, peanuts, almonds), onions, and garlic.
Mole Almendrado, made from almonds, is the most popular in San Pedro, although Mole rojo, Verde and pipián are also popular.
WHERE TO TAST MARINE DISHES IN SAN PEDRO
There are so many shops and restaurants along San Pedro’s main street, Avenida Hidalgo, and even more on the side streets, that it can be difficult to decide which one to visit. My advice is to pick a few at random.
Each store offers a dozen or more types of moles. Stop by any of them and the helpful staff will be happy to provide you with a wide selection for you to enjoy. You can buy the mole in powder or paste form, and Luís Juan Alvarado Retana, the owner of Mole don Luís, told me that the powder lasts longer. This is what I usually buy.
There are probably as many ways to make moles as there are moles. In Oaxaca, I learned how to fry tomatoes before adding mole powder. In San Pedro, most cooks skip this step.
Instead, the mole is fried and lightly browned in manteca (lard) before adding the chicken stock. Once you have the desired consistency, you are ready to enjoy the mole.
Once you’ve tasted the mole in the shops, it’s time to try the restaurant, and there’s plenty to choose from. Again, the decision may be difficult, but there really isn’t a bad option. Mole don Pancho is the main restaurant and certainly a good choice, but several smaller restaurants such as El Familiar are also excellent.
San Pedro’s most popular dish is the mole served on a turkey leg, but the mole enchiladas are worth a try. In San Gregorio Atlapulco, a nearby pueblo, I learned to simply add steamed vegetables to a mole, which can then be eaten with fresh tortillas at a nearby tortilleria.
THE MOLE OF THE FAIR IN MEXICO
In 1977, several restaurant and shop owners wanted to promote the pueblo mole and decided to hold a fair. The first one took place in May and only four restaurants participated. Subsequently, the fair was moved to October.
Now it is held in a small arena not far from the city centre. In 2018, the fair expanded to 29 restaurants and 50 shops.
There are also stalls at the fair selling local sweets. Many of the candies are made with amaranth from nearby Santiago Tulyehualco. They also sell pottery and many other handmade crafts.
Other stands and some bars sell pulque. This is a local maguey-based drink that is very popular in San Pedro and the surrounding pueblos. There’s also live music all day and well into the night, as well as a variety of rides.
WHEN YOU GO:
In addition to all the Mexican restaurants and moles, there is the Church of San Pedro Apostol, consecrated on August 28, 1680, which has been declared a National Monument.
Also, the small park in the city center is a great place to relax and digest your meal (it’s right across from the Restaurante Mole don Pancho). The cobbled streets are lined with colonial-era buildings.
Unfortunately, there are no hotels or Airbnb rentals in San Pedro. But there are many hotels and Airbnb in Xochimilco. It’s about 20 minutes by cab and only costs a few dollars.
Xochimilco is known for its amazing boats that carry tourists through canals originally built by the Aztecs, so it’s worth spending at least a day or two there.