Restaurant Review : Tucan: <i> Mole</i> That’s Easy to Swallow
As a child, I’d gaze with fascination into a pot of mole on a neighbor’s stove: shreds of meat and knuckle-y turkey bones poked out of a thick, dark, marrow-colored sauce in what seemed a potent, mysterious voodoo stew. The blend of chiles, unsweetened chocolate and ground nuts, however, was too complicated and baffling for me then. It wasn’t until my 20s that I fell in love with the stuff and began to search for it on menus.
I remember clearly the first nouvelle mole I ever had. It was seven years ago at Cha Cha Cha: a boneless chicken breast coated in a rich, piquant, not very chocolaty sauce--a far cry from what bubbled on my neighbor’s stove. Mario Tamayo, stopping by the table, explained that his clientele wouldn’t be amused by a voodoo stew: They wanted white meat, elegant presentation--a more user-friendly mole.
This temperate approach to mole and other Mexican and Caribbean dishes has since evolved into a kind of flexible, urbane local cuisine, much of it disseminated by relatives of Cha Cha Cha’s co-founder Toribio Prado.
I recently encountered such a mole at the reasonably priced Tucan in Culver City, right down the boulevard from Bamboo. Tucan’s owner, Rodolfo Mendoza, is the brother of Bamboo’s owner, Jose Mendoza, and both are cousins of Toribio Prado.
Tucan has the casual coffee shop feel of an old House of Pies or IHOP. But the beams have been painted bright blue, the booths are bedecked in green and purple, the walls covered in Aztec motifs and fluorescent, black-lighted murals of tigers, tropical foliage and those banana-billed namesake birds. Food comes on colorful neo-Fiesta Ware.
Tucan is especially popular at lunch, when workers funnel in from nearby studios. Evenings are quieter: A few families and couples wander in from the neighborhood. Single people may find Tucan one of the rare places they can feel comfortable dining alone.
The staff, gracious and attentive, tries hard to please.
While Tucan’s food shares the same fresh edge with Bamboo’s more eclectic Caribbean cooking, the menu is exclusively Mexican: There is no pizza, no corn chowder, no Caesar salad. The emphasis is on corn-oriented Central Mexican cooking. Tamales, slim, solid bars of sweet, husk-infused masa, are topped with sour cream and a roasted tomatillo salsa. Chicken sopes, two round, little corn boats filled with spiced stewed meat and beans, are pleasurably chewy and juicy. A more delicate container for virtually the same ingredients is the gordita, a thin, pale golden corn disc that’s stuffed, in our case, with delicious, chopped, grilled vegetables, beans, crema and queso fresco. Tiny--too tiny--daubs of good guacamole accompany these items.
Tortilla soup, sopa Maya, is a broth with a slight bouillon flavor in which float tortilla strips, slices of ripe avocado and, surprisingly, fresh mozzarella.
The cactus salad is one small, temptingly grilled paddle splayed on a bed of Roma tomato chunks in vinaigrette: Fewer, riper, tastier tomatoes would make this a far better dish. I was also disappointed in the Tulun salad, large chunks of jicama and papaya dressed, to no apparent advantage, with plain yogurt and fresh dill.
The same few ingredients appear over and over again in slightly different configurations. Toco Tucan is essentially a salad of the same chopped grilled vegetables we had in the vegetable gordita, with chunks of grilled chicken.
We recognized Bamboo’s Indian pepper sauce, here with tiny bits of caramelized pineapple, on a perfectly cooked wedge of salmon. A seared ahi filet, similarly well-handled, is topped with more roasted tomatillo salsa and a puzzling dash of beer.
Both shrimp dishes, the spicy, tomato-sauced a la diabla and the garlic-spiked buttery al mojo de ajo, are lively, but even at $11.75, one wants more than four medium-sized shrimp.
And then, of course, there’s the Oaxacan mole. It’s not at all the dark, earthy, chocolaty stew I remember eating in Oaxaca; rather it’s a slightly dry, boneless skinless chicken breast in a sharp, sweet, nutty chile sauce--very user-friendly.
* Tucan Restaurant, 9609 Venice Blvd., Culver City, (310) 287-0130. Open 7 days for lunch and dinner. Beer served. Parking in lot. Major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $21-$34.