.Mole of Champions

dining-1537WEBUncovering the secrets of the art with a former winner of the Mole & Mariachi Festival cook-off

It’s Sunday night and Leo Santana, who won the mole cook-off at the Mole & Mariachi Festival in 2013, is seated with us at a small round table in the center of his father’s namesake restaurant, Manuel’s. Sunday is a special night of the week at Manuel’s, when mole makes its first of two appearances; it is also served on Mondays.

Try conducting an interview with Santana and you’ll soon see that everybody wants to shake his hand, compliment the mole, tell him a story, or ask him a question. A sailing friend stops by to tell him about the evening on the bay. A joyous couple explains that they married after a single date at Manuel’s—their daughter is our waitress.

The team running Manuel’s never changes. They, too, are like old friends. Manuel’s success isn’t just its mole, it’s the feeling it creates of the best restaurant in a village in old Mexico—soft, cozy, classic, full of friends.

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I’m surprised when Santana is willing to answer my first—and toughest—question of the night: “Can you tell me what’s in your mole?” I wasn’t totally serious when I asked, because who is going to tell a food writer their secret recipe?

“Sure!” he says happily. “There are 24 ingredients.” As he starts to tick them off, I grab my pen. He stops. “Wait a minute! I’ll tell you once, and I’ll tell you really fast, but you can’t write it down. You don’t have one of those minds, do you?”

“She has the opposite of one of those minds,” my husband says helpfully.

“I will never remember, Leo. Continue!” I say, closing up my notebook and taking a bite from the plate of mole and chicken placed in front of me. The smoky, spicy richness catches me off guard. I take another bite of the dark, velvety, mysterious sauce. “What is in this?”

He rattles off the ingredients, which have not changed much since 1965, when Manuel’s first opened. “The original recipe was my father’s,” Santana says. “I entered three moles into the Mole & Mariachi Festival. First, my father’s recipe, then the recipe from the mother of one of my employees, and I entered my own recipe. Mine won. So that’s the one we now serve. How can I serve anything else?”

Santana makes the mole himself, and it’s a labor-intensive process. “I come in at two in the morning to make the mole. I roast everything the day before, then I come in and cook it all night. In the morning, the kitchen crew comes in and takes over, and they take it off the burners at noon. I’m the only one with the recipe,” he says with a grin. “It’s very personal, very complicated. Nobody makes it as good as your mother or grandmother. ‘Your mom is crying when I make mole!’ I tell the guys here when I’m cooking it.”

And no, the mole does not taste exactly the same every week, because mole is an art, not a science. “But only Patricia can taste the difference, she is an Olympic-level taster,” he says. Patricia is Mrs. Santana, Leo’s wife, who grows the dahlias gracing each table at Manuel’s. Patricia also happens to be the judge at this weekend’s Mole & Mariachi Festival. (Manuel’s did not enter the competition this year.) “I love this event. It’s about taking two communities and bringing them together,” he says enthusiastically. Manuel’s is an unusually big community supporter. This year, the restaurant celebrated 50 years with a week of giving, to the tune of 50 percent of all proceeds for an entire week, going to five local charities.

At the end of the meal, Santana treats us to a surprise mole dish, which may soon be on the menu. Like the recipe itself, I am not at liberty to say what it is. But I will say that Marianne’s Ice Cream (across the street) want to give Santana a call.

The third annual Mole & Mariachi Festival is 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 19, at Santa Cruz Mission Adobe State Historic Park, 144 School St., Santa Cruz. Manuel’s is at 261 Center Ave., Aptos. 688-4848, manuelsrestaurant.com.


TASTE TEST The third annual Mole & Mariachi Festival is 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 19, at Santa Cruz Mission Adobe State Historic Park.

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