The multitude of moles at East Los Angeles' Moles la Tía might just complete a culinary color wheel: Circle through the menu and you'll find the cheery yellow of the passion fruit mole, the herbaceous green of the finas hierbas mole, the pristine ivory of the velo de novia mole. These sauces don't seem so much cooked as they do composed, every ingredient mindful of its place in the restaurant's oeuvre.
Housing these often extraordinary moles is a dining room with familiar design ideas (a clean and classic terra cotta-colored space), but also a telling aesthetic: On the walls hang landscape paintings and portraits cut with cubist corners, each crafted in a sort of fractured geometry that pairs with chef Rocio Camacho's modern moles.
That style helps bridge a generational divide too, as those eager to sample the assortment of moles -- a task that can crowd the table with a dozen or so plates -- are just as likely to don well-worn cowboy hats as they are to sport brand-new fedoras.
There's a handful of appetizers available, but the restaurant's daily soup special is all you'll need. Recent options have included hearty entries such as cream of vegetable and potato-leek. For cooler days, look for the equally filling chayote soup, made with the wrinkly, pear-shaped gourd of the same name. The soup shares some rich traits with the cream of vegetable and potato leek, but it bests both by adding crisp strands of chayote for some textural diversity.
When it comes to chef Camacho's many moles (there are more than 15), geography is an obvious influence -- Camacho is a third-generation Oaxacan and still imports some ingredients from the coastal state. Ask her how she came to create her moles and she'll be quick to answer: Too often, she says, restaurants serve only tokens of Oaxacan cuisine. For her, Moles la Tía is a venue to display the true tastes of Mexico.
To ease you into that authentic experience, the restaurant offers several pre-paired plates. Halibut, for example, is veiled in the aforementioned velo de novia, a very untraditional mole mix of white chocolate, white wine, almonds and pine nuts. Salmon is served under a blanket of pistachio mole (Camacho's favorite).
But of the fixed options, make sure to try the mancha manteles, a literally "tablecloth-staining" mole about as dark as tar. It's one of the strongest flavors at the restaurant, a concoction spiked most notably with guajillo chile and cinnamon. It can be complex, at times bitter and spicy, at others sweet and subtle. Yet it's a perfect complement to the plate's tremendous pork tenderloin, punctuated by pieces of grilled pineapple and plantain.
The restaurant also affords you the option of creating your own dishes. Some of the sauces are self-explanatory: almond, coffee and tequila-lime. Others, however, might require a more thorough translation, like the espina de rosa (rose thorn), a magenta mole made primarily from hibiscus flowers and red wine. As meats go, there are more than 10 choices, including quail, veal, shrimp and scallops.
Because some pairings seem almost ordained -- duck, for example, takes on the tamarind mole with a preternatural ease -- it's tough not to piece together a great plate. Still, for those who can't decide, the staff will walk you through the mole-matching basics.
Don't get too lost in Moles la Tía's namesakes, though. With such varied dishes as excellent enchiladas and a cactus salad with red onion, tomato, cilantro and panela cheese, the menu is well-stocked. Mornings aren't a problem either, as Moles La Tia is open for breakfast as well, serving staples like chilaquiles and chorizo and eggs. Also not to be overlooked are the handmade tortillas -- dense, uneven discs so good they should be in demand nationwide.
Much of Moles la Tía's food is about finding familiar flavors presented in unique ways. It's there in chef Camacho's sophisticated moles and is plenty evident in the desserts: flan heated with ancho chile, rice pudding dressed up with tequila-soaked raisins and a tomatillo marmalade. It's even in the rotating roster of aguas frescas that, when the time is right, offers an excellent mamey fresca, a sweet treat that's as close as you'll come to a guiltless caramel shake.
Moles la Tía LOCATION 4619 E. Cesar Chavez Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 263-7842. moleslatia.com PRICE Appetizers and salads, $6 to $20; moles, $11 to $18; other entrees, $10 to $12. BEST DISHES Manchamanteles, salmon with pistachio mole, cactus salad. DETAILS Open 9 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday and Sunday, 8:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Street parking. All major credit cards.