Red, green, black, brown, studded with sesame seeds and sweet, bitter, spicy and scooped to the brim of to-go cups: As much as things may change Downtown—and especially through the last decade in Grand Central Market—the moles at Chiles Secos stay the same.
The family-run tiendita on the main floor of the historic food hall is one of the city’s most treasured mole sellers, and one that’s survived a changing Downtown, an evolving roster within the market, and waves of locals and tourists throughout the years. It’s watched children grow up, it’s weathered economic crashes and it’s seen a change of hands within its own family, but mole is forever and so, we hope, is Chiles Secos.
You might’ve noticed owner Rocio Lopez’s bright handwritten signs lining her stall’s glass case, a different color denoting each variety, with each mole fresh and delivered from Mexico weekly. The green-tinted pipian is made from pumpkin seeds, and the popular mole rojo, deep with flavor from dried guajillos, sits to the other end of the display. Hang around a half an hour and you’ll see curious newcomers and longtime devotees stop by for silver-spoon scoops of the kind of pastes that Lopez’s father, Celestino, began stocking in the 1990s. Ever since, they’ve become the signature item for the Lopezes, and slowly, as Rocio took over the stall after her father’s death, she’s doubled the varieties—and has hopes for even more.
The traditional Mexican pastes—thinned at home with chicken broth or water and used as a sauce for braised meats, enchiladas and beyond—have not only been the saving grace for Chiles Secos during the pandemic, but long beforehand. They became the stall’s chief stock for survival.
“A lot of people like the mole; when they serve it on the plate, they do like this,” Rocio says, wiping a finger along an imaginary dish and licking it off. “I’m here because of the mole. The other stock is little by little, because the economy is no good, but the moles are the first to sell.”
The Teloloapan mole comes from a family-run factory in Guerrero, driven up by an Anaheim-based brother who used to make the trek twice a week, but given the pandemic’s slow on business, the deliveries have been cut in half; the Oaxacan and Puebla moles keep the same schedule.
And while the moles are the draw at Chiles Secos, they’re far from the only wares. Customers cycle through for pocket brushes, single-use packs of Midol, bags of dried beans, packets of lentils and satchels of cashews under the original hand-painted sign—a piece of history from the 1970s-founded stall.
Rocio still stocks a few holdovers from her father’s tenure—glass bottles of habanero salsa, whole cinnamon sticks, jarred Spanish olives—but she’s been adapting the business, too: Protective face masks now hang behind the counter, just next to the framed photo of Celestino, and as Grand Central Market began to evolve into more of a food hall than a marketplace, her niece, Claudia, set up shipping to bring their moles to the rest of the country. (You can still find Claudia at the stall during the holidays, when she sells homemade tamales featuring the stand’s signature moles.)
Rocio has her own children who used to help at the stall, though they’ve since grown up and with little interest in keeping Chiles Secos going once Rocio retires. Thankfully for its decades of fans, that probably won’t be for a while.
“I’m going to be 61, so I’m here until my body gets tired,” she says. “I want to be at home and retire and enjoy my house someday, but I never think about how long I’m going to be here because we just never know.”
For now, she just wants to persevere through coronavirus; as business returns and mole sales pick back up, Rocio dreams of packing the case top to bottom with moles, then building up her stock with bottles of shampoo and canned goods to fill her shelves the way she remembers her father’s.
She wants to provide that legacy within Grand Central Market—now home to both old-school retail stands as well as a gourmet cheese shop, an oyster bar, and fast-casual concepts from a few of the city’s most notable chefs—and still carve out that space where her father’s customers can share stories about which candies Celestino used to hand them when they shopped here with their own family.
That’s not to say that evolution has been bad; Rocio says that within Grand Central Market, and all of Downtown, there’s space for everyone. “I don’t even think about it anymore, when there’s new and old together, but I think it looks good,” she says. “Some of the other [vendors] are over there—like a little piece of the old one. It’s surprising to people; they say, ‘Oh, this is the original.’”
Chiles Secos is open from 9am to 6pm daily within Grand Central Market, located at 317 S Broadway. The business is cash-only.