July 21, 2020 – It’s fitting that the main event at Copal Restaurant, which opens on Mission Street in Santa Cruz this Thursday, is mole.
Mole is the traditional Mexican sauce made in seemingly infinite styles with seemingly infinite ingredients, including multiple dried chiles, seeds, nuts, tomatoes, onions, unrefined lard and more.
It fits because Copal, named for an indigenous Oaxacan tree, is nothing if not built around lots of promising ingredients. One key ingredient is ace chef Ana Mendoza, who was born in tiny San Martin Tilcajete, Oaxaca, and worked in catering there for years before moving to Santa Cruz.
Her introductory menu includes a dark, roasty and robust Oaxaca-style mole negro made with ancho chile peppers, chocolate, hierba santa, avocado leaf, nuts and a choice of chicken or pork. There’s also mole coloradito made with ancho and guajillo peppers, tomatoes, plantains, chocolate, raisins, cinnamon, sesame seeds, almonds, and hierba santa.
Mendoza’s recipes have won awards at the Mole & Mariachi Festival and the Pajaro Valley Burrito Bash and helped sell out “Night in Oaxaca” pop-ups at Lúpolo, where her signature mole negra stole the show. Locals with a passion for homemade Oaxacan food will also remember her goods from a monthly brunch that she held at the Food Lounge in downtown Santa Cruz.
She produced those in collaboration with Stuyvie Bearns Esteva and Noëlle Antonlin after the three met at Front Street Kitchen, a shared commissary kitchen in downtown Santa Cruz. Esteva and Antonlin are two more important ingredients, as they bring valuable experience in how to run a vibrant, flavorful and locally sourced outlet: They opened popular Lúpulo Craft Beer House on Cathcart St. in downtown Santa Cruz six years ago.
While the beverage focus at Lúpulo is evident in the name, at Copal the focus will be mezcal—another key ingredient—but the philosophy will be familiar.
“We’re taking a similar approach that we do to beer,” Antonlin says. “If someone comes in and likes agave, we are going to try to put something in front of them they’ve never tried.”
Flights and tasting will focus on family-run Oaxacan mezcalerias.
“We want to support the smallest production family invested in sustainability and giving back to the communities they come from,” Antonlin says. “The aim is unique stuff not commonly found in your BevMos.”
Exclusively to-go hours will be 1-8pm Wednesday through Sunday with ordering happening direct from the Copal website or at the door. The three-deep takeaway cocktail list is in the works but it will include the house margarita built around a 50/50 mezcal tequila blend. Eventually to-go flights with tasting notes will be available, as will some sort of outdoor tasting program.
Salads and starters include things like an ensalada de nopal (a chopped cactus paddle salad with tomato, radish, onion and cilantro), street cart-style elote (grilled corn on the cob layered with mayo, lime, queso fresco and spicy worm salt) and ensalada de Semana Santa (with lettuce, beet, walnuts, almonds, plantains, cranberry and a sweet-and-sour dressing).
Mole negro tamales wrapped in banana leaf can go chicken, pork, or veggie. Molotes—another Oaxacan street-food-style treat—are tasty potato fritters with chorizo, refried bean paste, avocado salsa, queso fresco and red guajillo salsa.
Tlayudas are another southern Mexico speciality and resemble massive tostadas, with a big fried corn shell topped with black bean paste, salt-cured-and-grilled thin-sliced beef, Oaxacan chorizo, quesillo, avocado, lettuce and salsa.
The house enchiladas, with pork picadillo (or hash), tomato, raisins, almonds, mole coloradito and queso fresco, are yet another stomach-growl generator.
“You think you know what you’re going to get, but Ana’s dishes aren’t typical Mexican food you find in the states,” Antonlin says.
“Oaxacan cuisine has so many unique spices and ingredients that are native to my land and they inspire me to put love and effort and time into it,” she says. “I think people who haven’t tried Oaxacan food will fall in love with it and want to come back. Nobody has tasted enchiladas like ones I make!”
When asked what aspect of Copal she’s most excited to share with Santa Cruz, Mendoza is succinct.
“It is an art that I feel I want the world to see,” she says.
More at copalrestaurant.com.