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Enchiladas de mole, $10.95.

Image: Alice Levitt

With the debut of Xochi, Houston's first upscale Oaxacan restaurant, mole is on many diners' minds. Oaxacan moles have a dense history that's resulted in seven core varieties. But the one that gets the most attention is mole Poblano. The dark, chocolate-bolstered concoction from Puebla, is the version we know best, but each town in the state just north of Oaxaca has a unique recipe. The best place to try one of those without leaving Houston? Los Cocos Restaurant on West Orem Drive.

Los Cocos is the hometown of owners Francisco Lopez and Minerva Guzman. It's strange name, but not as strange as its official moniker, Juan R. Rojas. "It was founded around 80 years ago by our grandfather Ubaldo Rincon and other family members that had come to live in the area," the restaurant's website states. What sauce is indigenous to 300-strong Los Cocos? A killer mole negro, apparently.

There are two mole dishes on the regular menu at Los Cocos. We tried the enchiladas de mole, which uses the same inky sauce as the mole con pollo. Shredded chicken is densely tucked into tortillas softened with the sauce. Oh, the sauce. Chocolate and cinnamon are the first flavors to bloom, which implies it will be overly. But the suggestion of dessert quickly fades with the dark bitterness of comal-blistered dried chiles. This is serious stuff, far more complex than you'll find among the moles at most Houston restaurants.

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Mole de torta de queso.

Image: Alice Levitt

Other mole dishes are available as weekly specials. On Thursday, there's dark-red mole de puerco. On Friday, it's mole de torta de queso, fried rounds of queso fresco in a mole that's as spicy as its crimson shade suggests. The chewy chunks of cheese are presented over soft cubes of cactus with tortillas on the side, ready to be made into some of the most idiosyncratic tacos we've ever tasted. We can only imagine the slap of flavor on Fridays when the same dish is made with shrimp cakes instead.

And moles aren't all Los Cocos has to offer. Other specials include chilate de pollo, braised chicken in a guajillo broth; chiles rellenos; and grilled steaks and seafood. It may be more fun to hop a plane to Puebla. But until you have the vacation days accrued, Los Cocos is very satisfying middle ground.

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Los Cocos Restaurant

$ Mexican/Tex-Mex 3419 W. Orem Dr.

The moles of Puebla are the centerpieces at this comfortably casual restaurant. The mole Poblano enchiladas are an especially tasty way to experience the che...

Xochi

$$$ Mexican/Tex-Mex 1777 Walker St.

This elegant eatery on the ground floor of the Downtown Marriott Marquis isn't your average hotel restaurant. It's Houston's first upscale Oaxacan restaurant...