El Maguey Mexican Restaurant. 31481 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. 949.493.8681. www.elmagueysjc.com.
Mole is culinary magic. It blends dozens of spices, a variety of liquid bases, animal bits, vegetable parts and who knows what else, and stews them together until all the competing voices harmonize. But what defines most mole is the way all that alchemy embraces the savory side of chocolate, rounding off the bitterness and only hinting at the sweet stuff.
It’s a sauce full of wonder—as in, “I wonder if I’m supposed to taste all those ingredients, and if I can’t, will foodies think I’m lame?” The truth is every restaurant that makes mole does so in their own way, and ingredients blend to create other flavors like paint on a palette. El Maguey’s take on it has 40 spices—I could pick out about two of them, even though clearly something truly wonderful is going on.
The consistency of El Maguey’s mole is unique, sort of like an egg over medium—firm but runny; creamy but structurally sound. Atop moist chicken, the mole stars. It’s chocolate-forward and encompasses all jurisdictions of the tongue. There are whiffs of hot cinnamon and ginger, of bright oregano and cilantro, of smoky chili, and of cool roasted garlic. But, then again, who knows? And who cares?
There are lots of dishes that make El Maguey special—traditional plates from Jalisco and Guanajuato that span from robust Mexican breakfast plates to fried whole tilapia to a variety of fresh juices. But the mole—so expertly done, yet so simply offered—is exceptional.