At Aldama in South Williamsburg, a pulsating, mezcal-fueled ode to Mexico City, an inky mole takes the shape of an abstract painting. A black mound of molten seeds and chiles sits on a ceramic plate, like lava cooling over asphalt. Cooks place a canopy of truffles and herbs atop, decorating the mole with flashes of green and grey. And that’s it. A mole negro often enriches a pile of pulled turkey, but the pre-Columbian specialty doesn’t have to adorn an expensive protein to be a great dish. Good mole is the dish. It is an edible distillation of fire, smoke, and soil. This particular Brooklyn version recalls the poetic words of cookbook author Alejandro Ruiz, who writes in the English edition of The Food of Oaxaca that moles are “alchemies concocted over low heat, a still intact allegory of our spicy earth.”
Aldama is one of the few local restaurants serving mole negro with little else; a few ounces of the dark elixir command $30. Chefs slowly cook down anchos, cascabels, walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds, sesame seeds, kombu (not a typical addition), mushroom stock, chocolate, peanuts, and too many other ingredients to list. You then drag a white corn tortilla through the carbon-colored paste until it’s all gone. The flavors that ensue almost appear at random, like the tunes of a freeform jazz ensemble; there are notes of dark chocolate, fertile soil, fungi, pepitas, sugar, and lingering heat. Sometimes the flavors hang around for a second; sometimes they smolder for so long you still taste them after a server has cleared your setting. It is a ghost of a dish.
It also happens to be fully vegan.
Mole negro is often inaccessible for those who don’t consume animal products, due to the addition of chicken stock, chocolate with dairy, or heaping chunks of braised chicken. Aldama co-owner Christopher Reyes tells me the team wanted a mole that “everyone could eat.” And the result, here at this late night party of a restaurant, is a product that channels the wonders of watching Terence Blanchard play trumpet at Blue Note or sitting behind home plate at Yankee stadium. That is to say, there are other places to eat Mexican food, listen to live music, or watch baseball, but the mole here channels a raffish style of quintessential New York luxury that screams: When you’re here, you don’t want to be anywhere else.
Reyes, a Queens native of Puerto Rican and Guatemalan descent, and chef Gerardo Alcaraz, who put in some time at the three-Michelin-starred Martin Berasategui in Spain, have given the city what might be its finest modern Mexican restaurant in nearly seven years.
In a compact bar room just below street level, patrons watch as golden-hued trompos spin in the semi-open kitchen. Dominican, Argentine, Colombian, and Spanish pop tunes echo throughout the wood-trimmed space. Counter workers pipe purple frozen drinks — a blend of mezcal, vermouth, and hibiscus — into short glasses rimmed with spicy-salty sal de gusano. And servers ferry al pastor-style tacos made not just with the typical pork but with layers of flank steak and quenelles of pineapple-serrano gel. Every element comes through as if magnified: The porkiness of the fatty swine, the bovine punch of the beef, the musky sweetness of the house-milled corn tortilla, and the avant-garde fruit sauce that imbues everything with a stronger tropical aroma than a single slice of pineapple. There is no other al pastor taco like it in New York.
The local Mexican and Mexican-American scenes have evolved tremendously since 2014, when Enrique Olvera opened Cosme, a stunner of a Flatiron restaurant that served the type of photogenic and pricey small plates — uni tostadas, squash barbacoa — that city residents were more accustomed to encountering at fancy Euro-leaning establishments. The restaurant, along with parts of Alex Stupak’s Empellón empire, would convince diners that ambitious Mexican fare could empty their wallets at nearly the same rate as a tony steakhouse or mid-range sushi spot, with dinner often running $150 per person or more.
Olvera eventually followed up with the excellent Atla, a spendy all-day cafe for chia seeds and suadero tacos in a building where rental apartments ran up to $12,000 a month. And other ambitious Mexican spots — many of them quite expensive, some of them less so — began to pop up as well. Oaxacan spot Claro eventually appeared in Gowanus; it went on to hawk darn good moles as part of a $72 set menu. Sobre Masa, a sprawling cafe and tortilleria around the block from Aldama, opened last fall, attracting a hip crowd with weekend DJs and chefs hawking $25 ceviche appetizers. And while Xilonen in Greenpoint might not be the showstopper it once was, the venue still draws chic crowds serving iced blue atole and Instagram-friendly vegan chorizo tacos.
What sets Aldama apart — aside from its throbbing energy, cozy bar room, and Latin pop soundtrack — is that it ranks as one of the city’s most technically minded modern Mexican spots. The chef’s plating style frequently evokes fastidious magazine art direction, though never at the expense of creating something that can’t be gobbled down after sipping a wee bit too much mezcal.
Alcaraz whips together a menu of 15 or so dishes inspired by the cooking of Mexico City, Tijuana, and his hometown of León, Guanajuato. Some of those preparations are rarely seen at the type of Mexican spot that charges $14 for cocktails. Case in point is the cecina, thin slices of air-dried beef that often find their way into tacos at more casual venues. Atla used to serve it as a wonderfully saline steak meant for folding into tortillas, but Aldama does things a bit differently, deep-frying the meat until fully crisp. The result is an avant-garde chicharron, a wavy brown sheet that undulates like a Frank Gehry roof. As the meat reconstitutes itself in your mouth, the experience is akin to consuming the exterior of a griddled smash burger. It is beef to the power of 1,000.
Alcaraz also plays around with campechana, the Mexican seafood cocktail that often takes the form of tomato-slicked shellfish piled high in a tall glass. Here, the chef arranges bite-sized morsels of shellfish into a small ring, which he garnishes with grassy cilantro and fresh sliced chiles. The net effect is a collection of seafood and herbs doing their best impression of a Christmas wreath. Small nuggets of octopus are brilliantly springy, while the delicate shrimp are no firmer than flan. And a vegetable-seafood broth at the bottom masterfully heightens all the briny, maritime aromas.
For tostadas, Alcaraz turns to a more international source of spice, deploying strategic doses of yuzu kosho in a loose pile of striped bass ceviche. The tartness factor is tame here, to let the oils and meatiness of the fish come through. To sample something a bit wilder, consider the daikon tostada; the chefs fold up carrot and radish ribbons like like Thai rolled ice cream and lace them with a level of pucker that recalls lime juice amped up by the voltage of an electric eel. A few slices of avocado and the popcorn punch of the tostada provide welcome relief.
A separate bar menu offers deep-fried tuna tacos, though the over-fried interiors can sometimes take on the texture of jerky, so stick with the al pastor. Also keep in mind that the mole, just like a fickle French sauce, can vary from day to day. During one visit, the preparation was somewhat thin, almost like runny chocolate sauce, and flaunted more subtle aromas that recalled ash, chalk, slate, and cacao. The nuances were a touch harsh at first, but a few sweet chanterelles brought everything back to an elegant equilibrium. The first mole showed off through forthright, assertive flavors; this one was gentler.
If you eat meat, the mole negro functions as a modestly portioned mid-course before a whole baby chicken appears. Alcaraz cooks the bird at a low temperature for six hours, leaving the flesh with a poultry flavor so concentrated it tastes as if the bird spent its final weeks feeding entirely on schmaltz. Rip off the meat and glide it through a tan pipian mole, a pool of sauce that slicks the chicken with a clean creaminess and a powerfully nutty pumpkin seed kick.
A few minutes before the kitchen closed on a recent night, the kitchen whipped up a doily-sized round of crisp fried dough, as snappy as carta di musica bread, and doused it in whipped cajeta. The crown of funky goat’s milk cream served as an ideal foil to the dough’s crunch. As I devoured this showpiece, Argentine rapper Nicki Nicole blasted through the sound system; patrons asked the bartender for mezcal recommendations in Spanish; and a man in a white suit danced outside. Indeed, there is almost nowhere else I want to be, right now.