If you've been once bitten and are now twice shy about mole, fear not, absolution is as close as Rancho de Taos at Antonio's (four miles south of Taos Plaza). This contemporary and traditional Mexican restaurant serves mole as it was meant to be made-slowly and conventionally.
"Some people have had a bad mole experience," says Antonio Matus, co-owner of the eponymous eatery. "They say, "I've had mole and I don't like it.' But then I get them to try my mole and they say, "Now I know what real mole is.'"
According to Antonio it takes at least five to six hours to prepare a proper mole. It's a long arduous process, but the accolades from the customers and the repeat business his enchiladas de pollo con mole and pato (duck) con mole poblano bring certainly outweigh the efforts.
A self-taught cook, Antonio prepared his first mole by visually remembering the ingredients that he saw on his aunt's table each time she made mole. "My aunt made the best mole in the town of Vera Cruz where I am from," Antonio says.
When he perfected his recipe he decided it was time for the ultimate test. He phoned his mother and asked for the aunt's recipe. "My mole was just as delicious as hers," Antonio says with pride.
Sarah, Antonio's wife and co-proprietor, nods her head in agreement. The couple first met a decade ago when they were both employed at the former El Patio Restaurant (now the Alley Cantina). Labeling herself a Jack-or perhaps more fittingly, a Jill of all trades, Sarah on any given evening might greet guests, take reservations, bartend, wait tables or perform any one of the thousand tasks it takes to run a restaurant. She is responsible for the restaurant's charming decor, a gold and orange color scheme, which Sarah claims increases the appetite and the whimsical paintings and trompe l'oeil commissioned by local artist Reto Messmer. "This place was very dark," Sarah says of a former incarnation of the restaurant. "I wanted to give it a happy coloring and make it a little jewel box."
It is indeed just that. Seating about 40 patrons in the main room, with additional seats at the bar, Antonio's is very intimate and welcoming. Another private room in the back is reserved for private catered functions such as wedding receptions, rehearsal dinners, Christmas parties and other festive celebrations.
In their current leased location for 12 months, Antonio's began as a smaller in-town restaurant. The new locale (south of town in the original Joseph's Table space) is excellent for day skiers from Santa Fe and Albuquerque wishing to stop for a bite to eat on the way home.
Business has been good for Antonio and Sarah, but it was not always so idyllic.
"I've always wanted to have my own restaurant," says Antonio who claims to have worked in almost every dining establishment in Taos-and a few in Angel Fire-as either a cook, waiter or manager. "I was very focused on that goal and that was all that mattered," he continues. In Mexico Antonio worked for the popular Carlos "n Charlie's chain, Se-or Frogs, in hopes of acquiring his own store. He was on the management fast track when a friend suggested they move to Taos. He did. Antonio started working locally, met his wife, married and achieved his goal, but not that effortlessly.
When another friend stated his father would back a restaurant for himself and Antonio in Austin, Texas, Antonio, Sarah and the friend headed south.
"We had a small apartment with only a television, dog and air mattress from Walmart," Antonio recalls. "We were paying rent on the apartment and mortgage on our home here."
Sarah, a licensed beautician had gone back to her former profession and was doing nails and hair in Austin. The couple had just enough to get by. They worked by day and scouted restaurant locales on their days off and in the evenings. When they found a suitable place the deal suddenly fell through, leaving Sarah and Antonio in the lurch. They returned to Taos disappointed and in real financial straits.
Antonio pauses midway through his story and puts his arm around his wife then says, "The one good thing about our time in Austin was the church we joined. We learned to put God first and suddenly the focus was not on owning a restaurant anymore."
The couple tithed a portion of their land sale to their church in Taos, Mount Zion Tabernacle, and then suddenly "everything began to fall into place."
"We found a place to rent for the business. We would go to Albuquerque or Santa Fe to buy things we needed and everything would be on sale. It was everything we had always wanted, but now it wasn't the main focus in our lives," says Sarah.
Antonio's is not a "religious" establishment. At the bottom of the menu, the couple express their gratitude with a simple note that reads, "Thanks for coming." But they do believe that the basic tenet of putting God first is the reason for their success. Everything else can proceed at a normal pace without a manic fear of what would transpire if, for instance, the 2005-06 ski season is not a banner one. Throughout the year the amount of visiting guests is often proportional to the amount of snow Taos Mountain has received and the weeks around the Christmas holiday are the busiest time for the restaurant.
There is a relaxed and casual atmosphere at Antonio's. Children are welcome and there is no dress code. An eyebrow will not be raised-as it has been known to happen in other establishments-if a patron is in a ski suit. And they often are.
The only worries shared by Antonio and Sarah are that returning guests might not find their year-old location. A letter of praise from an English family begins with their abject horror in going to the restaurant's old locale only to find it replaced by another business. Luckily, their concierge pointed them in the right direction.
Another cause for alarm amongst customers is the removal of a favorite item from the menu. But Sarah puts the guests at ease by stating, "We can make that dish for you," and indeed they do. There are some staples, such as the Mexican Vegetarian Combo, that will never be removed. "Another dish we will always serve is the Cochinita Pibil (slow roasted pork marinated, wrapped in banana leaves and cooked with various spices) and Barbacoa de Borrego " (slow roasted leg of lamb wrapped in banana leaves), says Antonio. As he slowly rolls his "R's" in the words Barbacoa de Borrego one can picture the lamb slowly roasting in the banana leaves.
Other must-have staples include the mole or the red and green chiles which accompany many of the main courses. "We just can't get the locals to give up their chiles," laughs Sarah.
And as of December 1st the locals can have their chiles at lunch. Antonio and Sarah will open a small luncheon place, Rellenos Cafe by Antonio, near the plaza. Although there will be a few small tables, the restaurant will focus on take-away items. Geared towards local workers on a tight budget, no item will be more than $7.50; the eatery will also offer a free delivery service to businesses on or near the Plaza. The menu will feature burritos, chimichangas, soups and salads and healthy fruit smoothies.
"It's open to anyone," Sarah says, "but we want to give the local worker a nice meal that is not too expensive." It is a way of giving back to the community that has been good to them.
Antonio's, located at 4167 Hwy 68, in Ranchos de Taos, is open Monday through Saturday from 5:00 to 9:00 p.m. Reservations are accepted and recommended during the holiday season. (505) 758-9889.
Rellenos Cafe by Antonio, 135 Paseo del Pueblo Sur, is scheduled to open Dec.1. Rellenos Cafe will serve lunch Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. At press time a phone number was not available.