When she was young, Brianna Arzaga, didn’t like mole. She disliked the complex Mexican sauce made from a wide, numerous, varying blend of ingredients so much she would scrape it off her food.
“I’m second generation [American],” says Arzaga, who has roots in Mexico, including Sonora on her father’s side. “I grew up with mole as a dinner option. This was probably one of the only things I didn’t like when I was little.”
Today, Arzaga has a molcajete tattooed on her arm — an homage to the ancient stone bowl she has used to make countless batches of mole, now one of her favorite foods. She also has an a thin red pepper on her other arm. It is chile de arbol, one of six chiles fueling the signature mole that she sells through her young-and-growing mole company, Socorros.
Today, Arzaga makes mole in 3-to-8-gallon batches, taking 12 hours each. She drives mole across the Valley and has delivered as far as Tucson. Arzaga also sells through places like Taco Chelo (when open). Grand Avenue Pizza Company has used her mole on specialty pies. Pint-size jars of it cost $10 to $12. If you return three jars after use, you get one free.
Arzaga first came to fully appreciate mole while making it as sous chef at Barrio Cafe Gran Reserva, which she left last year.
Mole, which predates colonization, is enjoyed widely across Mexico and in many forms. In Phoenix, you can find some mainstays. Mole poblano, referred to by some as the national dish of Mexico. Pipian verde, smooth and green with atomized pepitas. Mole negro, velvety and dark and the best-known mole of Oaxaca, “land of the seven moles.” Mexican cuisines are a core pillar of Arizona’s food culture, but metro Phoenix isn’t an enclave where moles abound. Though they could.
“Mole is not common here,” Arzaga says. “It’s barely coming around to becoming a little more popular.”
She wants more locals to embrace mole like she has. “When I began to prepare mole for the restaurant I was working in, it just came to me — the complexity, the depth, the time it takes,” she says. “I was responsible. I was the only one producing it. So I became very close to it.”
The decision to start Soccoros, named after her great-grandmother Soccoro Carranza, came during a trying stretch. Gran Reserva closed for the summer. Arzaga was temporarily out of work.
Soon, she found herself in a tight spot. “I had $60 in my account for two weeks,” she says.
Parked outside a Food City, she needed to buy groceries. But she got sudden inspiration to try to sell mole, so she posted to social media that she’d be making a batch. “I was waiting there,” she says. “Waiting for any responses. I got nothing. I’m just praying and I’m like, 'God, come on, something’s got to give.'”
No replies. She got out of her car. “And then, I just got flooded,” she says. “Everybody was messaging me at once. I just started laughing, crying-laughing, like overwhelmed.”
She made a batch of mole. She turned $60 into $300. A small business was born.
Mole lets Arzaga flex skills honed over 11 years in professional kitchens, some Mexican, some not. Like other chefs and home cooks, she unites dozens of ingredients, yams and agave and bay leaves and masa and cinnamon and dry fruit and cheese. Plus spices she warms to open up. Plus chiles she roasts, usually over a cherrywood fire. Plus much more.
Despite her erudition, Arzaga takes a freewheeling approach to mole, one that considers more than taste when devising non-traditional versions. “Mole is an art palate,” she says. “You throw a little bit of this, a little bit of fruit, and just run with it. The colors, too. You start with a color wheel. If you want it to come out dark, you put dark stuff in it. If you want it to come out bright, put more bright.”
Her original mole hums with a dark chocolate hue tinged just barely red. It lists 15 ingredients on the label, 16 if you count amor, and this doesn’t include her unlisted herbs and spices. Her original mole doesn’t hew to any preexisting style. It’s her own, vegan and nut-free, the one she has roasted, toasted, blended, and sold largely through social media since Socorros started three years ago.
“Everybody makes mole different,” she says. “Everybody has a different style.”
Arzaga just released her second regular concoction, a raisin-dark mole negro that uses a vastly different ingredient blend and alliance of chiles (ancho, mulatos, and pasilla). She plans to develop more moles that will regularly appear for sale, and even just bought berries for testing a dessert mole.
“I want to do a blueberry-plum,” she says. “I have chiles. I’m so excited!”
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Before using her mole — “On your burgers, veggies, chicken, traditional enchiladas, on anything” — Arzaga recommends warming it with a bit of water. Her original mole leads with an enigmatic dark-fruit tapestry dusky with spicing, any one flavor impossible to peg. Seconds later, a tamed heat flashes, gradually washing out and folding back into the early current. It’s really nice.
Arzaga sees Socorros as the next step in her evolving culinary present and relatively new journey to connect with the foods of her past, even if bonding with mole took her years.
“I want to keep our traditions alive,” she says. “It’s love. It takes time."