Italians have tomato sauce, bubbling away on the stove for hours, changing in style from region to region. In the southern region of the United States, barbecue sauce is prepared in kitchens from Charleston, S.C., to Kansas City, each one a little different. And in the central and southern parts of Mexico, mole sauce, that intensely flavorful, totally unique blend of chiles, cinnamon, tomato, fruit, chocolate and many other ingredients, reigns supreme.
The mole in the state of Puebla isn’t like anything made in the state of Oaxaca, however, or in Tlaxcala, or in Mexico City. Ruby Cruze is originally from Oaxaca, and when she and her business partner, Janice Graham, decided to open their restaurant, Coco Loco, now in downtown Bangor, Cruze knew, of course, that mole had to be on the menu. Her mother, Paula, had cooked it for decades, and her mother before that, and her mother before that. Good, natural food is in her blood.
“My mother was organic before anybody did organic,” said Cruze, who grew up in the small city of Huajuapan de Leon in the north of Oaxaca. “She still lives her life like that. No preservatives. No extra stuff. Just real food.”
Coco Loco opened in early May in a sunny, brightly colored space on Central Street, and as Cruze’ mother would want, it’s all natural and it’s as close to authentic Mexican food as you’re likely to get in Maine. The corn tortillas are homemade, pressed on Cruze’ custom-made tortilla press. Dishes aren’t drowning in shredded cheese and piles of sour cream, like you’d see at most Americanized Mexican restaurants. Rather, there’s soft, crumbly queso fresco and small amounts of sour cream, aka crema, drizzled on tacos, enchiladas, picaditas and more. Those looking for a huge, cheap burrito big enough for two can look elsewhere; at Coco Loco, they’re small, simple and delicious.
“If people want to eat Taco Bell, then they can go for it. That’s OK. You can eat whatever you want,” said Cruze. “But that’s not the kind of food people eat in Mexico. If I can educate people about the flavor and how we make it, then I’m happy. I just want to share the food I love.”
Cruze, who came to Bangor with her family in 2008, met business partner Janice Graham while their daughters, Carol Cruze and Denali Graham, played on the same soccer team. A road trip to Boston cemented their friendship and, subsequently, Cruze cooked her food for the Graham family.
“She cooks for everyone,” said Graham. “We just kept trying new things and being blown away by all of them. It’s really just head and shoulders above anything else you can get.”
Over the next two years, Graham concocted a plan with Cruze and fellow business partners Valerie Kitchen and Susan Ortiz to open a Mexican restaurant in downtown Bangor in order to showcase Cruze’ authentic food. When a space became available right in the heart of downtown, they jumped at the opportunity. After several months of renovation, including brightly colored walls and a handmade mosaic in the front windows, Coco Loco opened at 11 Central St. in early May.
Reaction to Coco Loco’s food has ranged from raves from diehard Mexican food fans who are familiar with authentic Mexican to curiosity in newbies who need a little coaching through the differences between what Cruze makes and the Americanized fare you might find elsewhere. Coco Loco operates more as a traditional taqueria, a place to pick up quick, authentic Mexican food, as opposed to a sit-down restaurant with a large menu.
“The thing I say to them is that you’re probably used to Tex-Mex kind of food,” said Cruze. “That’s not the kind of food I make. We don’t use any ground beef at all, and we only use flour tortillas in one dish. Little by little, we’re going to introduce new things to the menu.”
One thing that was featured from day one is, of course, the mole. Cruze starts it the day before, blending cinnamon, cumin, chilis, raisins, garlic, pepper and many other ingredients into a fine paste. Eventually, she blends that with tomatoes and broth, and later chocolate, resulting in a rich brown-red sauce with a deep flavor that’s at once savory, sweet and pleasantly bitter. Served over enchiladas or simply with some tortilla chips fresh out of the fryer for dipping — que es algo delicioso.
“They call Oaxaca the land of a thousand moles,” said Cruze. “That’s because every small town has its own way of making it. All Mexican food is like that. What you eat in Chihuahua or on the border isn’t like what you have in Oaxaca. I hope people can learn about all of it.”
Before they opened, Cruze and Graham took a field trip to the Hunt’s Point Terminal Market in the Bronx in New York City, where they picked up a number of ingredients they use regularly in the restaurant, including tamarind fruit and jamaica flowers (pronounced ha-may-ca) with which they make two tangy iced teas just begging to be consumed on a hot summer day. There’s also horchata, the sweet, creamy, rice-based beverage many may be familiar with.
Coco Loco is open for lunch and breakfast only, Monday through Friday, serving huevos rancheros alongside American fare such as pancakes until the late morning. Cruze hopes to eventually serve special dinners, such as chile relleno or tamales.
“Whatever we don’t sell, we eat,” said Cruze. “It’s a good thing.”
Coco Loco is open from 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Monday-Friday, at 11 Central St. in downtown Bangor. You can like them on Facebook at www.facebook.com/pages/Coco-Loco/121971957883550.