Celebrating Taste

The sign on a nearby bank building read 103 degrees Fahrenheit, 39 degrees Celsius. It seemed like it had to be a mistake–but then again, maybe the day itself had gotten hotter in anticipation of Mole de Mayo, a festival devoted to the spicy sauce unique to Mexican cooking.

The goal of Mole de Mayo, according to the non-profit 18th Street Development Corporation, which organized the two-day festival, is to promote local businesses in Pilsen, “the heart of Chicago’s Mexican community.” For two days, a mini city of white tents rose on a lot on Peoria between 18th and 16th street. Every restaurant worth its salt set up a booth and competed for the title of best mole, a thick sauce made from chilies and chocolate. Local vendors hawked their wares, artists sold their prints, and numerous little old men pushed along their tiny ice cream carts on the periphery of the white-tent village.

However, the real goal of Mole de Mayo, at least for the people who visit, is to watch Mexican wrestling matches, ride the mechanical bull, and consume more enchiladas, sopes and agua frescas than was previously thought humanly possible. Ten local restaurants set up shop, selling not only mole but also enchiladas, sopes, caramel-filled churros and other classic Mexican food. For the fourth year in a row, a panel of local celebrities judged the moles on factors like fragrance, color, and the balance of sweet and spicy. If you’re looking for a Mexican restaurant to check out this summer, take note: the first place prize went to Fogata Village, the second prize to Las Palmas, and the third to De Colores for their mole rojo.

The heat of the day, I must admit, could make certain customers lose their heads. Somehow, I managed to down two agua frescas and an horchata, in addition to sampling my friend’s delicious chili-mango ice cream. The group of us managed to hold our own among the mole-crazed as we plowed through plates of chicken and pork bathed in the smoky brown sauce. We also sampled delicious plantains with mole from Las Palmas and a very messy and very satisfying pork and potato sandwich from Juanitas, a restaurant that attracted us because its kiddie-pool sized deep-frier.

It was a treat to sample the tastes of the neighborhood, but the sounds also left an impression; all day long, different live bands played cumbia, rock, bomba and other genres. There was even a Youth Mariachi Band and a group called Hurakan that described itself as “Aztec Ambience.” The music was lively and fun, but the area in front of the stage was totally empty;  the audience enjoyed the tunes from the safe shade of the food tent.

However, the folks were completely willing to brave the sun if it meant they could see men in bright yellow costumes and masks pretend to beat each other to a non-bloody pulp. The audience oohed and aahed (or chuckled) as luchadores threw punches mere inches from each others’ faces. The crowd whooped and hollered as the masked men were flipped up into the air and crash-landed on the stage, which had drums underneath so as to produce a satisfying boom every time someone landed.

As fierce as the battle was, though, the wrestlers still managed to put on a smile as they posed with babies and adoring fans at the end of the day. It had been a good day for ice cream, for wrestling, and for music. Mole de Mayo announced that the summer had truly begun, and that Pilsen was the place to enjoy it.

Missed Mole de Mayo? Go to http://eighteenthstreet.org/blog/mole-de-mayo/ to find a list of participating restaurants and bands.