September 2018

The 6th Annual Mole Festival Hits SC September 8th:

The Ancient Mix of Chocolate and Hot Spice was an Accident and Now a Favorite

By Brad Kava

SWEET & SPICY Maria Joa Gallardo and daughter Erica Bonilla Gallardo show off their mole on chicken at El Chino restaurant on Soquel Drive before they enter the mole contest Saturday Sept. 8 at the Mole & Mariachi Festival downtown.

You might not expect traditional Mexican food at a place called El Chino, but that’s what Maria Joa Gallardo’s family has been producing in Soquel since 1984. The restaurant at 2525 Soquel Drive, next to Jelli Beanz, uses recipes from Mexicali, where Gallardo’s family hailed from before moving to Santa Cruz.

Why El Chino? Because both of Gallardo’s Chinese grandfathers were immigrants to Mexico who married Mexican women and both of her par- ents are half Chinese and half Mexican. There is a large community of Chinese immigrants in the city of 690,000 in the state of Baja California.

And one of their most popular specialties—mole (which rhymes with Oh-lay)–will be on display Sept. 8 between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. at the sixth annual Mole & Mariachi Festival at the Santa Cruz Mission Historical Park. e event offers moles from a host of Santa Cruz restaurants and tasters vote on their favorites. The event is free but mole sampling costs $10 for 6 tastes.

Competitors include Margaritaville, Mama Marquita, and My Mom’s Mole. Performances will include music by Mariachi Gilroy and Mariachi Infantil Alma de Mexico, and folkloric dance by Estrellas de Esperanza and Senderos.

According to legend, mole had its start in 16th century in the city of Puebla, when nuns learned that the archbishop was coming to visit and being poor, they had nothing special to offer. They made a mix of 20 ingredients, including chocolate, which turned out exquisite with the contrast of sweet chocolate and spicy peppers.

Gallardo has been in the contest before and loves the atmosphere and varieties of the exotic dish. Her restaurant’s mole, made by chef Refugio “Cuco” Bautista, is middle of the road, not to spicy or sweet. It’s subtle and delicious and has attracted people coming to the big restaurant that looks like a hole in the wall since 1984.

Her father and mother, Henry and Josefina Joa, started the restaurant after coming to Santa Cruz to work at Little Tampico downtown. They started small with 10 tables and now seat 75 people.

Yelp reviewer Cynthia B. from Aptos summed it up this way: “This is by far the best Mexican food I have had since moving here from San Diego. The interpretation of Mexican food is typically different in Nor Cal (which isn’t bad…) But, El Chino is authentic.”

That’s what Gallardo says is her signature, making authentic, fresh Mexican food, right down to the homemade chips. And, no, there are no eggrolls served here.

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