Amalia Sierra, the owner of the popular food cart Tierra del Sol, often repeats three words when talking about one of her most distinctive dishes: “Mole is mole.” It’s her way of saying that the dish — an intricate blending of chiles, dried fruit, nuts, seeds, herbs, and sometimes unsweetened chocolate — is both an obvious element of daily life and completely otherworldly, chaotic magic unlike anything else. In her hometown in Oaxaca, women have proudly nurtured and guarded mole recipes since the pre-Hispanic past, and it’s a widely acknowledged pillar of Mexican cuisine.
As tradition dictates, family variations of mole are passed down like heirlooms. Now that Sierra lives thousands of miles away from home, she continues to nurture her Oaxacan birthright, poured over Mexican blue corn tortillas in an aqua cart.
Tierra del Sol lives in Portland Mercado, a Foster-Powell food cart pod dedicated to Latin-American cuisine. There, Sierra serves straight-up staples of Oaxacan street food as well as her family moles, ladled over chicken legs and enchiladas. The cart has developed a following throughout Portland, nabbing praise from local bloggers, alt-mag Willamette Week, and inclusion on Eater Portland’s 38 Essential Restaurants list. Tierra del Sol also offers tacos and quesadillas using the tortilla recipe Sierra learned as a kid, but the dishes that steal the show are the extra-big, crunchy tlayudas, the tetelas stuffed with creamy beans, and, of course, proudly fragrant, rich Oaxacan moles.
Tlayudas are large, thin, toasted tortillas, traditionally crisped over an open fire and served open-faced or folded, a Oaxacan favorite to grab and go. In Oaxaca, it’s tradition to spread a type of lard with browned bits of chicharron as a base, and then generously top with beans, queso Oaxaca, cilantro, avocado, and your choice of meat or veggies.
Although Sierra has a soft spot for tlayudas, it is no surprise her favorite dish is mole. As a Oaxacan woman, she knows by heart the foundational seven common moles of Oaxacan cuisine: negro, rojo, amarillo, coloradito, verde, chichilo, and manchamanteles. “Moles are synonyms of Oaxaca — they are one in the same,” Sierra says. “You want to celebrate? You make mole. Mole is life, it’s happiness, it’s celebration, it’s emotion. It’s family.”
Sierra grew up in a small town called Santa Cruz Tacache de Mina in Oaxaca, Mexico, where her parents worked the land and owned a small shop. In her family of 10 brothers and sisters, everyone had chores to do, but the women ran the kitchen, cooking for the men in the house. Sierra was making fresh tortillas at 6 years old, picking the corn her father grew and forming them over burning wood at the family ranch. “I can close my eyes and smell the mole my mother cooked for us. I can still taste the warm tortillas dipped in mole,” Sierra says, smiling.
She left her hometown and graduated with a degree in accounting, working and living in Puebla, Mexico, for seven years. She decided to move to Portland, Oregon, in 1994. In Portland, as a new wife and mother, she started cooking from memory the basics she picked up from her mother. “I found that I missed dearly the flavors of Oaxaca and could not find them anywhere in my new home,” she recalls.
As she kept cooking her favorite dishes, like moles, tlayudas, and tetelas (and calling home to review the recipes with her mother and sisters), Sierra also found how liberating it felt to finally explore her deep-rooted love for food. Growing up, she says, food wasn’t allowed to be a passion; rather, it was her duty as a woman in her family, her cooking knowledge passed down from her Oaxacan grandmother, her mother, and a long list of aunts.
In Oregon, Sierra worked as a social worker advocating for migrant agricultural workers for the Oregon Child Development Coalition. After leaving the job in 2009, she moved back to Oaxaca, this time as a single mom of three planning the next chapter of her life. After a walk at the Mercado 20 de Noviembre in Oaxaca — eating fresh tetelas made on the street corner, smelling the mole spices, inhaling one of her favorite tlayudas — she decided that when she returned to Portland, she’d open her own space to serve her favorite foods of Oaxaca. “I didn’t know how, but I knew I would cook tetelas, tlayuda, and moles,” Sierra says.
Sierra came back to Portland by the end of 2009 with a clear vision and a new motivation to embrace Oaxacan cooking as a passion, dreaming up how she’d tackle her favorite foods as a chef. She researched recipes and learned to source her ingredients from local farmers she now calls friends from the King Farmer’s Market. She cooked at friends’ celebrations and did constant tastings for her community, looking for feedback and accommodating her menu to the local palate while maintaining Oaxacan flavors. She aimed to not only feed her customers but showcase tastes commonly found at Oaxacan markets and street food vendors.
Tierra del Sol made its debut at King’s Farmer’s Market in 2013. “It was very scary to serve things like tlayudas and tetelas on my menu five years ago — no one knew what they were,” Sierra says of those early days. She was worried that serving the foods of Oaxaca as opposed to what she saw as the assimilated Mexican food of Portland — tacos and burritos light on the spice — wouldn’t be well received. “But I cannot help to think to myself that Mexican food is not just tacos,” she says.
Tierra del Sol sold out within the hour. After the first customer came back to ask for a napkin, face dripping with mole, Sierra knew all was good. “After hearing that, I finally took a breath,” she says.
In 2015, Sierra opened her cart at the Mercado, selling her version of Oaxacan street foods like her beloved tlayudas. At Tierra del Sol, tlayudas are open-faced, layered with creamy black beans, a kick of spice, a choice of carnitas, other meat or veggies, queso Oaxaca, salsa, cabbage, onions, tomatoes, and avocados, all topped with a thin chicharron powder. “When I opened, I sold none, but after giving a free taste to everyone who would stop by,” Sierra says. “Now I find myself selling hundreds.”
The cornerstone of Tierra del Sol is her moles, found over enchiladas, stuffed into quesadillas, drizzled over tacos, and delivered in bowls with chicken legs. Sierra serves three that she grew up eating the most: verde, amarillo, and coloradito.
“I make mole every day, and that keeps me close to home. When I make mole I am reminded of Oaxaca, of my family ranch, my mother and my sisters,” says Sierra. The one she remembers eating the most is pipian, or mole verde. Her family made it the most for special visits, family gatherings, and birthdays. Sierra uses her family recipe for mole verde, full of pepitas (pumpkin seeds) she sources from Oaxaca; jalapenos; tomatillos; cilantro; and hoja santa.
Mole coloradito is made with more than 15 ingredients, including dried chiles like pasilla, guajillo, and ancho; onions; garlic; and a touch of raisins and chocolate for sweetness. “This mole means a celebration of life,” she says. “I always remember this mole on quinceañeras and weddings, always made in big quantities.” she says.
Amarillo or yellow mole, the humble cousin of coloradito, is not sweet at all: It’s a rich sauce made of aji tomates, or red tomatoes; onion; garlic; spices; tomatillos; dried chiles; and hoja santa. “This mole is my children’s favorite mole,” she says. “For me, this is the Portland mole, perfect for rainy days and if you’re feeling under the weather.”
A mole recipe is not handed down on a flash card. It takes countless hours of family gatherings, celebrations and quincieñeras spent observing, tasting, and assisting the woman in charge. “When you are young, you begin by smelling the mole while it’s being made, and as you grow up you are given chores and more responsibility in the making of the mole,” Sierra says. “My mom still leads when we make mole together.”