REVIEW w/pics: Cactus, Moles and More at Juan's Restaurante
When it comes to Mole, the first time I ever had a Mole dish was in 2006. Don't applaud my good memory. I only knew that because it was an experience that was included in my very first Pleasure Palate blog post. If you don't know what Mole is, you can get more information here,but basically, it's a type of sauce that is part of Mexican cuisine andcould have anywhere from 20 to 40 ingredients. As a food lover, if you've never had mole, you're truly missing out on something special. When done right, a mole sauce can show complexity and have layers of flavor that would simply amaze you.
So when a little birdie or actually a friend mentioned a new mole restaurant called Juan's Restaurante, my ears perked up. When I found out that it was a 15 minute drive my house, I knew I had to check this place out and luckily, I was able to do that through a 15 course tasting menu that was set up with the restaurant.
Walking into Juan's, the first thing I saw was a woman making handmade tortillas, but the one thing that really stood out about them was they were bright green. I'll tell you why later in this post. In the dining room, there was also interesting wall art, but one painting had a recognizable face. It was a painting of Chef Rocio Camacho. Chef Camacho is known for her moles and worked her mole magic at a couple of restaurants before finally opening her own restaurant just recently. She worked as a consultant at Juan's Restaurante for a period of time and served as inspiration to Chef-Owner Juan Mondragon as he perfected his mole recipes.
So now let's talk about our meal which actually started with a beverage tasting. First up was their Sangria Afrodisiaca which is made up of 30 different kinds of fruit, tequila and agave wine. It was just the right amount of sweet with a little hint of tartness.
The second drink was one of three kinds of agua frescas that they serve. If you're a beet lover, then their beet agua fresca that also includes lettuce and apples might be just for you. I actually like beet juice but it can be strong in flavor, so it might not be for everyone. In fact, a couple of people in the group said that this beet agua fresca was like drinking a salad, which may or may not appeal to you.
An agua fresca with cactus and pineapple was the second one we tried. It was actually my favorite. I really liked the slight grassy-sweet-tart flavors of the drink. It was really refreshing and also a nice palate cleanser throughout the meal. The third agua fresca was the hit of the table and it was their Pumpkin Orchata. Instead of rice milk, it's made with almond milk which gave the drink a sweet nutty taste.
Before I talk about the food, I should mention that there's more to this restaurant than just the moles themselves. There are actually two underlying themes. One has to do with how Chef Modragon's goal is to feature the cuisine of Pre-Hispanic Mexico, which is represented by his moles as well as other dishes on his menu.
Second, nopal is something that has been consumed in Mexico for thousands of years for its health benefits. It's even considered cancer-fighting. When a Chef's family member got cancer, she started to include more nopal in her diet. To help with the monotony of eating the same kind of food over and over, Chef Mondragon actually developed nopal recipes to offer variety, some of which are also on the menu. By the way, I have to offer a disclaimer and say that I don't know if nopal is indeed cancer fighting, but I can say that his family member is now cancer-free.
All this brings me to the first dish of our meal, which was a Nopal Empanada Stuffed with Squash Blossoms. I had to do a double take for a second because the empanada was as green as the green tortillas I saw earlier. It turns out that both the empanada and tortillas are made with just cactus and lime juice. As for the nopal empanada, I loved how light and flaky the empanada was. Apparently, it's that way due to the fibrous nature of the nopal itself. The squash blossom filling also had a nice flavor.
Next was the Nopal Empanada Stuffed with Huitlacoche. I enjoyed the smokiness and earthiness of the corn fungus and actually marvelled at how the empanada wasn't oily at all. When I asked the Chef about that, he said that the empanadas aren't cooked with oil. Instead they are grilled and covered to allow the circulating heat to do all the actual cooking.
After enjoying our first two appetizers, my little birdie friend,who also brought tequila to the party, gave us both a taste and a tequila tasting lesson with a little shot of Siete Leguas Tequila Blanco. Regarding this tequila, it was made in the highlands of Jalisco, which apparently has less of a "bite" than lowland tequilas. Also, Leguas is the name of Pancho Villa's horse. Now for the lesson. To be able to identify the flavor notes of a tequila, you breathe in, take a sip, swallow and then breathe out. As you breathe out, your palate can sometimes taste the nuances. I think I tasted lemon or lime, but I'm not quite sure.
Queso Fundido with Cactus, Bell Peppers, Onions and Mushrooms with Nopal Tortillas soon came along. Unfortunately, I didn't care for it too much. I love my cheese and the cheese was too overpowered by the size of the other ingredients. The melty cheese should be the star and would have been if all the other ingredients were scaled down in size and were more supporting players. I do have to mention that we were served tasting portions so perhaps the actual dish has a lot more cheese than what we received, so that's something to consider.
The next cheese dish which was the Queso Fresco, however, was a hit. This particular cheese is house made from low fat milk. It was wonderfully light and ate well rolled up in the nopal tortilla with the spicy salsa they had brought out earlier.
After the Queso Fresco, came the Cactus Salad with a house made vinaigrette. The cactus was nice and crunchy and most important of all, not slimy. I've had cactus salads at other restaurants where the cactus had a slimy texture which is a total taste turn off.
One of my favorite dishes was the Cochinita Pibil Taco. The pork was marinated in mandarin orange juice which gave the meat its citrus flavors, but I also loved the fact that it was spicy. It certainly woke up my taste buds and made them stand at attention.
What followed next were 3 different soups starting with the Sopa Mixteca which is a tomato-based soup with nopal and charales, a tiny fish that is either dried or salted and fried. The broth was spicy which I enjoyed and I liked the hint of saltiness that came from the fish.
After the Sopa Mixteca came the Caldo de Piedra, a seafood soup that came with an interesting story. Apparently, this Pre-Hispanic Mexican dish was historically a dish made by a husband for his wife every Sunday as a Thank Your for all her hard work. The preparation goes like this. Put all the seafood and other ingredients in a pot. Heat up rocks in the fire until the rocks are red. Place the hot rocks in the soup and that's how the soup is cooked. That same preparation is done at Juan's. Unfortunately, I found the story more memorable than this soup. I can't remember any distinct flavors. I do remember that the octopus was amazingly tender, but that the shrimp was a tad over cooked.
Our last soup was the Tlapeno which was a soup with carrots, garbanzo beans and chipotle. I had an issue with the fact that there were hardly any garbanzo beans at all. I think I had three and the person beside me had only one. The most anyone had in their soup was probably 4 or 5. On our tasting menu, carrots weren't even listed as an ingredient; yet, it seemed more like a carrot soup than a garbanzo bean soup. Hopefully, a full sized soup will be more garbanzo friendly than our tasting portion was. Garbanzo beans or not, the broth was too smoky from the chipotle for my particular taste.
Done with the soups, the next item to arrive was the Nopal Tres Milpas, which was also referred to as a Nopal Quesadilla. It's basically two nopal halves filled with cheese, Serrano chilies, squash and corn. Again, the preparation of the nopal was great in that it wasn't slimy and instead had a nice little meaty texture to it. I did think that the filling needed just a tad more seasoning of some kind, but overall, this dish is a great vegetarian option.
More nopal came in the form of the Carne Asada dish which was cooked with corn, onions, bell peppers and were on a bed of nopal. I'm not sure if by this point my palate was just getting fatigued, but this dish seemed similar in flavor to the Nopal Tres Milpas.
It was tequila time again and our next taste came from Chamucos Tequila, which is a Raspado. This company that makes this tequila is family-owned. Their raspado tequila is aged from 2 months to a year in virgin white oak barrels which gives it a lighter yellow color that is not very common for raspado tequilas. Chamucos, by the way, translates to "devil" and that image is definitely reflected on their bottle label. The flavor notes from this tequila was all about cinnamon.
The grand finale for this meal was all about the moles. First, a platter of different meats were brought out that included tilapia, salmon, shrimp, pork and a filet mignon. Then out came ramekins with 10 different moles for us to try with the various proteins.
The moles we tried were the following:
Mole Poblano (Chocolate Mole - a tad more smoky than Mole Negro)
Mole de los Dioses (Huitlacoche)
Pipian Verde (Green Pumpkin Seeds)
Pipian Rojo (Pumpkin Seeds with Red Chili)
Mole de Pistachio
Mole de Nopal (Cactus)
Aromas de Mexico (Guava and Passionfruit)
Mancha Manteles (Special Oaxcan Chile)
Mole Negro (Chocolate Mole)
Velo de Novia (Pinenuts and Almonds)
When it came to the moles I liked, I definitely gravitated to both the Mole Poblano and Mole Negro, both of which have chocolate as one of the ingredients. The subtle difference between the two was that the Mole Poblano was a little smokier than the Mole Negro, but both had rich, dark complex flavors. The Pepian Rojo was also one that did it for me. It reminded me of a Kare Kare, a Filipino stew made with peanuts. However, my absolute favorite was the Mole de Nopal. I just liked its green herbiness. Apparently, I'm in good company because when Oprah Winfrey is in town, Chef Mondragon will cook for her and the Mole Nopal is her favorite mole, too.
After our mole madness, we relaxed with our third tequila from Volcan de mi Tierra. This particular tequila is an Anejo Tequila which is aged for about 14 months. This was my favorite of the three because of the lovely caramel notes that came through.
Finally, it's dessert time and the first one that came out were two different types of flan. One was a corn flan and the other was a nopal flan that was topped with a tuna syrup, which comes from the cactus flower. An interesting thing about the flans were that they were made without eggs. I wouldn't have known that if the Chef hadn't mentioned it. Each had a dense, creamy texture that I really enjoyed.
However, my absolute dessert was the Rose Petal and Cinnamon Ice Cream and the almond, chia seed and sesame seed brittle bowl it sat in. I loved that the ice cream was floral with a "bite" but I have to say that the edible bowl was killer. It was caramel-y, nutty and just downright delicious. Give me a whole bag of that and I'd still want more. Our final dessert was a Corn Cake. I liked it because it wasn't overally sweet and had an almost creamy texture similar to a Tres Leche Cake, but not as soggy.
Overall, my meal at Juan's Restaurante was wonderful. I really appreciated Chef Mondragon's take on cactus. I've never had cactus in so many different ways before and of course, you can't visit his restaurant without trying any one of the mole dishes or that amazing cochinita pibil taco and ending with the fantastic rose petal and cinnamon ice cream. All I know is that I'm glad that Juan's is only a mere 15 minutes from me because I look forward to many visits to come.
4291 Maine Ave
Baldwin Park, CA 91706
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Thanks for the great review! I'd only been to Juan's for the Sunday brunch, which wasn't nearly as exquisite as your meal, BUT (and maybe this is setting the bar a bit low) was one of the few Sunday brunch steam-table buffets I've tried that wasn't A) extortionately priced, B) appalling, or C) both.
Is the tasting menu a regular offering, or something you negotiated privately? If it's the latter, could you give us some guidance on price, minimum party size, and advance notice?
Can you clarify "empenada and tortillas are made with just cactus and lime juice"? Do you mean along with the standard grains and the vibrant green coming from the nopales? I have seen and tried the "nopaltillas" marketed locally - at the 99 cent store! Interesting trend.