Pepe’s mole en pollo is a delightful discovery

South Texas Flavor

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Pepe’s Mexican Restaurant, located at 117 S. 77 Sunshine Strip in Harlingen, serves up a fabulous mole en pollo. (Travis M. Whitehead | Valley Morning Star)

HARLINGEN — There’s a rumbling, a stirring and an excitement in conversation over a noon meal that brings freshness and lift after a rather dismal morning.

I don’t know why it’s been a dismal morning, just that it has been, and stepping into Pepe’s Mexican Restaurant at 117 S. 77 Sunshine Strip offers a transformation.

It’s Friday, and I’m warmed by the intimacy of the menu. Menus aren’t generally intimate but this menu is. I see a section for Audrey’s Combination Plates, another for Marisa’s Mexican Plates, and still another for Gabriela’s Child’s Plates.

Who is Audrey? And who are Marisa and Gabriela? They must be quite special to have entire sections of the menu named after them. I’d like to meet them sometime. I’d like to discover what makes them special and why they have their names over sections of the menu.

Audrey offers a taco plate and enchilada and chile relleno. Gabriela’s child plates include carne guisada and enchilada for a child’s appetite, but I have an adult’s hunger.

OK. Let’s see what Marisa has for me: fajitas toreadas, pollo en mole, chile … wait a minute. Mole en pollo. Now that catches my attention.

I remember the first time I tried mole con pollo. It was my first trip to Morelia in the Mexican state of Michoacan, west Mexico, in the early 2000s. Everything was so new to me then. I was on the zocalo and I was walking through the portales that surround the zocalo and the cathedral.

I entered a little restaurant and looked at a menu and saw something I had never eaten: mole con pollo. I had heard of mole con pollo many times but had never had a occasion to enjoy the experience.

I ordered the mole con pollo, took my seat at a table outside in the shade of the portales, and felt the coolness of the cantera stone and enjoyed the view of the cathedral across the street, absorbing these novel experiences.

The mole arrived after a few minute and it was a bit too spicy for me. I had to drink copious amounts of water after each bite but that didn’t stop me from enjoying my mole con pollo. I was primarily interested in the cultural experience of eating such a signature Mexican dish, and I would not let the hotness and burning of it stop me.

Strangely though, I sought mole con pollo at every opportunity and developed a taste for it. I especially liked seeing the Purepecha women at Domingo de Ramos in Uruapan in Michoacan preparing mole con pollo in huge pots over a fire.

These are the memories and images that I recalled when I saw mole en pollo on the menu at Pepe’s, and that’s what I requested from my waiter who wore a spotless white guayabera. All the waiters wore spotless white guayaberas and I don’t know how white guayaberas can be spotless in a restaurant. I admired their skill in keeping their guayaberas clean while working with food.

He asked if I wanted flour tortillas or corn tortillas, and as always these days I requested corn, because they are the more authentic Mexican tortillas. They have more nutrients and more flavor.

While I wait, I take in my surroundings. Customers have filled almost every table. Four men with the directness of purpose work on their meals, talking about important matters in the kind atmosphere of conversation and mariachi music at Pepe’s. They speak with boldness and humor, and an especially commanding individual with thick shoulders rolls up a corn tortilla and dips it into the sauce on his plate.

Two uniformed law enforcement officers packing sidearms and billy clubs and radios rise from their table and walk toward the cashier.

At the table next to me I see two men praying before their meal. It is fine to see people practicing their faith at lunch without reservation.

My plate of mole en pollo arrives. I wonder if there’s a difference between mole en pollo and mole con pollo. I can detect no difference. This meal is as delicious as any I have tasted in Morelia or Puebla.

It has a bite to it, a strong bite but a good one that doesn’t compel me to drink copious amounts of water. As I enjoy this fine meal, I consider that other moles I have tasted over a long career of mole tasting have become as spicy as those who have sent me diving into my glasses of water. I wonder now if perhaps my tongue has adjusted over years and years of eating spicy mole.

I used to say “No tengo bastante callos en mi lengua (I don’t have enough callouses on my tongue),” but perhaps I have won that battle and can now enjoy spicy mole and the flavors of all moles throughout Mexico. This is a fine place to be.