Smoked beef brisket with chocolate mole: magic or fool's errand?

Photo: Kevin Pang
Photo: Kevin Pang
Make It Till You Fake ItIn Make It Till You Fake It, The Takeout writers try to recreate a magical dish they saw somewhere, then reflect on whether their valiant attempt was a success or failure.

I don’t usually fall hard for food porn, but Texas Monthly BBQ editor Daniel Vaughn posted this picture on Instagram and immediately I convulsed into the hamana-hamana’s:

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I mean, did this not also stop you in your tracks? A smoked beef brisket sandwich, but where a tomato-based sauce would be slathered, there’s a Oaxacan-style mole sauce made with chocolate.

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This sandwich was on my mind for several weeks, its very idea poking my pleasure lobes. Yesterday, I couldn’t stand it anymore, and decided I must tackle this cooking project. The problem: I was a total lazy ass. I wasn’t about to 1) Spend 16 hours smoking brisket in the Chicago winter, 2) Buy the three dozen ingredients require to make a proper Oaxacan-style mole.

But I can fake it.

Photo: Frontera Foods
Photo: Frontera Foods

Faking it means to piecemeal a recipe together with the culinary equivalent duct tape and coat hangers. Yes, I would take shortcuts, because time is money. Mostly I was curious to know if the idea in my head matched reality.

The first thing I did was head to my local mega-grocer, which surprisingly, sells fairly decent barbecue (At certain Mariano’s here in Chicago, they smokes their ribs and briskets inside a Southern Pride, rare for a supermarket). Here, I bought a pound of thick-sliced brisket, opting for the end and fatty pieces. Next: I found a ready-made sauce packet of Frontera’s Classic Red Mole with ancho and sesame (right), this the brainchild of friend-of-The Takeout Rick Bayless. Since the ingredients in the mole didn’t list chocolate, I also picked up a bar of Ghiradelli’s 70 percent cacao extra bittersweet chocolate. Then a yellow onion, and finally, a pack of brioche buns because I’m feeling like a fancy fuck.

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Once back home, I melted three one-inch squares of chocolate with the mole sauce in a saucepan. Next came the onions. I had a cast-iron skillet of leftover bacon fat from that morning, so I sliced the yellow onions extra thin into rings, dredged it with flour and seasoning salt, then fried them crispy. This was a sound decision. Finally, I toasted the brioche, and began layering the brisket high. On this I spooned the thickened mole sauce, then the tangle of fried onions to top off. This was what I was staring:

Photo: Kevin Pang
Photo: Kevin Pang
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The verdict

Upon tasting, I could tell a few areas could have been improved. First, I should always butter the buns. Second, the sauce had become a tad bitter from the chocolate—but in a good, complex sort of way that would enliven a more neutral-tasting meat. But for smoked beef brisket, it might have been too aggressive a pairing. So at my wife’s suggestion, I added a teaspoon of honey to the sauce to take off the edge in my following batch. I also should have used one square less chocolate, and a 60 percent cacao that would have taken the bitter edge off.

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What we had was the convergence of three bold flavors: hickory-smoked beef, a resonant, coffee-like Mexican mole sauce, plus fried onions. It’s three Mack trucks running head-on to each other. A smart tweak would have involved less of the sauce, and, a contrasting acidic component—perhaps a vinegary slaw. With chocolate and chiles, my mind also wandered to something with peaches? But that seemed too far-fetched with a fatty cut of beef.

In the end, that Instagram photo was indeed enticing, but like with most pornography it’s a fleeting titillation of the senses. A thick, spicy tomato-and-molasses barbecue sauce would have surely matched better here. And yet I don’t want to give up on this smoked brisket-chocolate mole idea. So I turn to you, Takeout commentariat: how can we make a culinary idea like this work? Please offer your best suggestion here, and thank you.

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Kevin Pang was the founding editor of The Takeout, and director of the documentary For Grace.

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DISCUSSION

I live in Chicago, and am curious: “certain Mariano’s” as in multiple sites, or “A certain Mariano’s” as in one particular location? And where would these/this be? Intrigued by this mole/brisket combination, and would like to try it for myself!