My Mother, My Mentor



At Hugo Molina restaurant in Pasadena, you may be served a risotto with caramelized morels and crabmeat in brandy lobster reduction or grilled lamb chops with roasted garlic, goat cheese mashed potatoes and a wild berry Merlot sauce.

But at Molina’s home in Alhambra, the food is very different--especially when his 85-year-old mother, Tirza Molina, comes over. Together, they produce Guatemalan food the likes of which are rarely found in restaurants here.

The vegetable sauce jocon, the roast beef with pulique and the mole-like sauce pipian were on the menu there one day recently. Tirza Molina, just back from Guatemala, wore a cherry red dress trimmed with black lace, made by a daughter living there. “She’s my mentor,” the chef said proudly of his mother. “She is the main lady for these recipes.”


Molina, a chef’s white apron tied about his waist, was ready to produce what seemed like very complicated food in very little time. His wife, Aricia Alvarado, who is pastry chef and manager of his restaurant, stayed on the sidelines.

Soon the kitchen was filled with wonderful aromas of meat in complex sauces. “Most of the typical sauces of Guatemala lean a little toward the Mexican mole,” Molina said. One difference is that Guatemalan food relies less on peppers. Jocon contains none. Pulique and pipian require only two each, and the effect is not spicy.

These were the three dishes Molina was preparing. He also planned to grill a platterful of vegetables, including yellow and red bell peppers, green and yellow zucchini, thick slices of red onion and portabello mushrooms.

“A lot of roasting is done there [in Guatemala],” he said, describing modest eating places with no stoves and no modern amenities, where food is cooked over direct flame. One grows hungry hearing about marinated meats hung over a fire to dry and absorb smoky flavor before they are grilled, or the charcoal taste of vegetables roasted for sauces.

“On my family’s side, almost everything was roasted--chiles, onions, tomatoes, tomatillos,” Molina said.

Jocon is typically served with pork, wild boar and wild or domestic turkey. Tomatoes, tomatillos, green pepper, parsley, green onions and garlic are ground together and then added to the cooked pork and thickened with diluted corn masa.


Pipian is closer to a Mexican mole poblano because it contains chocolate, cinnamon, sesame seeds and dried chiles. But the classic mole poblano doesn’t include achiote paste, toasted squash seeds and sweet vermouth. Perfect with chicken, the sauce is delicately sweet from the wine. “The European side of Guatemala uses wine in cooking,” said Molina, whose father, Ernesto, is of Spanish descent.

Molina’s parents, who now live in Elysian Park, farmed coffee, sugar cane, bananas and oranges on plantations in Guatemala. They also had a restaurant, candy shop, market and butcher shop where Molina first learned about meat cuts. When his father retired 15 years ago, they moved to Southern California to be with the rest of the family.

For pulique, Molina chooses a premium grade of beef filet, resulting in a juicy roast to slice and serve with the garlicky tomato sauce. If one is as organized as Molina, this dish can be prepared in only 15 minutes. He roasted the meat, seasoned with garlic and olive oil, at high heat for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, he pureed and simmered the sauce, which he added to the meat for a final five minutes in the oven.

In a surprisingly short time the dining room table was covered with big platters of food. Along with the three meat dishes and grilled vegetables, there were buttery mashed potatoes and rice and black beans, which Tirza Molina boiled, pureed in a blender, then worked into a paste in a skillet.

For rice, she prefers basmati or jasmine because the grains don’t break up or stick together. Her method is ideal for anyone who wants to get food ready well before serving. She boils the rice, spreads it out to dry and stores it in the refrigerator, then reheats it with butter and slivers of green onion.

“Rice, beans, tortillas. They are the basics,” Hugo Molina said. “And plantains. The beans are always black. Pinto beans are used very seldom.”


Born in Huehuetenango, Molina has many more Guatemalan dishes in his repertoire. For reference he turns not only to his mother but to four sisters who live here. “When we decide to do all types of Guatemalan food, it’s fun,” he says. One of the sisters, Nelly Molina Vasquez, is daytime sous chef at Molina’s restaurant.

The regular menu includes one Guatemalan-influenced dish: salmon roasted in a banana leaf and placed on a spoonful of red pipian sauce (pipian rojo). But the presentation is far from traditional: The accompanying black beans are set on a little tortilla and topped with cabbage, ranchero cheese and fresh crema.

Occasionally other Guatemalan flavors sneak onto the menu. At Christmas, Molina might offer miniature tamales. And he has taught tamale-making at the restaurant. Nevertheless, he bows to the superior achievements of Tirza. “My mother makes killer tamales,” he says admiringly.

Once in a while, restaurant goers might get to taste a special dish such as cack ick, an Indian name for turkey breast or pheasant marinated with sugar cane juice and beer, then served with a sauce that involves more cane juice and beer, roasted tomatoes and cinnamon.

Every month, Molina schedules a cooking class at the restaurant. The next session, May 20, will include a couple of Guatemalan dishes so that Molina can talk about this underrated and little known cuisine.

Guatemalan restaurants here “always do the same old traditional foods,” says Molina regretfully. “But Guatemala has so much beautiful cooking. Guatemalan food is like a sleeping giant. There is so much you can do with it. It just needs someone who is creative.”



Active Work Time: 15 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 45 minutes

Guaque peppers are commonly used in Guatemala but may be hard to find in Southern California. Use guajillos instead.

1 (2-pound) beef filet

2 tablespoons olive oil

3 tablespoons minced garlic, plus 4 whole cloves

Salt, pepper

3 large Roma tomatoes, cut in half

1 small onion, roughly chopped

2 guaque peppers

2 whole cloves

5 black peppercorns

Leaves from tip of 1 sprig epazote

2 cups chicken stock

* Place beef in roasting pan or Dutch oven. Coat with olive oil and minced garlic and sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. Bake uncovered at 400 degrees 10 minutes.

* Meanwhile, combine tomatoes, onion, garlic cloves, peppers, cloves and peppercorns in saucepan and cook over medium-low heat 8 minutes. Puree in blender with epazote and stock. Add pureed mixture to beef, cover and bake 5 minutes longer. (Beef should remain slightly pink in center.) Place beef on platter, cut into slices and ladle sauce over top.

4 servings. Each serving: 346 calories; 560 mg sodium; 92 mg cholesterol; 16 grams fat; 8 grams carbohydrates; 41 grams protein; 0.91 gram fiber.


Active Work Time: 30 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 45 minutes

Pepitoria is available at Latino markets.

2 chickens, each cut into 4 equal parts


2 1/2 teaspoons salt

3 large Roma tomatoes, roasted

1 (1/4-pound) onion, roasted and sliced thick

2 guajillo peppers, stemmed and seeded, toasted and soaked in hot water

1/3 cup pepitoria (green squash seeds), toasted

1/2 cup sesame seeds, toasted

1 (2-inch) cinnamon stick

2 ounces Mexican chocolate

3 tablespoons achiote paste

4 cups chicken stock

1 whole clove

1/2 cup sweet vermouth

* Place chicken pieces in Dutch oven. Add water to almost cover and 1 1/2 teaspoons salt. Cover and cook until chicken is just done, about 25 minutes. Set aside. (If there is much liquid, drain it off.)

* Combine tomatoes, onion, peppers, pepitoria, sesame seeds, cinnamon stick, chocolate, achiote paste, chicken stock, 1 teaspoon salt and clove. Bring to boil and simmer 15 minutes. Remove from heat. Blend in a food processor or blender and strain through medium sieve. Taste for seasoning. Sauce should not be too thick or too thin. Set aside.


* When ready to serve, add vermouth to chicken in pot. Simmer 3 minutes, then add sauce and cook 5 minutes longer.

8 servings. Each serving: 526 calories; 1,298 mg sodium; 131 mg cholesterol; 36 grams fat; 10 grams carbohydrates; 38 grams protein; 1.77 grams fiber.


Active Work Time: 25 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 1 hour

Fresh masa is available at Latino markets.

2 pounds pork loin, cut into 8 equal pieces

3 cups water

1 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons butter

2 Roma tomatoes, chopped

1/4 pound tomatillos, husks removed, chopped

2 cloves garlic, chopped

2 cups water or chicken broth

2 whole cloves

5 black peppercorns

2 green onions

1 green bell pepper, cut in chunks

1 bunch parsley

1/4 cup corn masa (not instant masa flour), diluted with 3/4 cup water to make fluid

* Cook pork in 3 cups water with salt over medium heat about 30 minutes. Remove excess liquid.

* Heat skillet until very hot. Add butter. When butter melts, add tomatoes, tomatillos and garlic and fry 2 minutes. Then add 2 cups water, cloves and peppercorns and cook 5 minutes. Remove from heat and blend in blender with green onions, bell pepper and parsley. Add more water or broth if needed for blending.

* Add this mixture to pork and cook 5 minutes. Add some of masa liquid to sauce and cook 5 minutes more. Sauce should be medium thickness. Taste and adjust seasoning.

4 servings. Each serving: 686 calories; 856 mg sodium; 146 mg cholesterol; 58 grams fat; 11 grams carbohydrates; 28 grams protein; 0.60 gram fiber.