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La Poblana rewards adventurous diners with distinct regional cuisine. Photo by Lee Chastain.

According to legend, the nuns panicked when they were told to expect a visit from the archbishop. They had nothing suitable to serve such a distinguished guest. In desperation, the cloistered women prayed for guidance, and an angel appeared to instruct them. Entranced, the sisters ground chocolate, chiles, nuts, and spices together and stewed them into a thick sauce to serve atop the only meat in the convent — a stringy old yard bird. But the archbishop loved the dish, the nuns saved face, and the rest is, as they say, history.

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La Poblana Café

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3200 S Cooper St, Ste 102, Arlington. 817-419-7970. 8am-8pm daily. All major credit cards accepted.

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The nuns’ tradition is very much alive at La Poblana Café in South Arlington, where the owners feature a version of this national dish of Mexico, the mole poblano, from their home state of Puebla. As we gringos begin, slowly, to appreciate that Mexican cuisine is no more monolithic than that of any other major culture, restaurateurs with a distinct regional identity can add a new dimension for adventurous diners in North Texas. Puebla, a colonial capital between Mexico City and the coastal state of Veracruz, is home to a particularly rich and varied gastronomic tradition, of which La Poblana is a worthy emissary.

If you can find the place, some of the best mole in town is hiding under a sign in a shopping strip that says, simply, “Mexican Restaurant.” Its modesty is one of several indicators that suggest the owners didn’t open up this joint just to cater to the tastes and sensibilities of el Norte. Walking into the dining room is like taking a step right off the grid –– the Univision ad for Bernie was the only sign that I was still in the United States. The décor was bright, with nearly everything hand-painted in orange, yellow, and lime green, and the worn linoleum and mismatched plastic chairs weren’t a fashion statement. The ambience seemed to be a sincere reflection of our hosts’ priorities: What matters here is the food.

On a recent visit, the staff was about as comfortable speaking English as I was speaking Spanish, but goodwill plus plenty of patience saw us through. Breakfast service starts at 8 a.m., with a selection of egg dishes and burritos. I ordered a platter of chilaquiles. Only moments later, two perfectly scrambled eggs topped with cheese arrived flanked by tall piles of tortilla strips soaked in red and green chile sauce. On the side were enough rice and beans to make me want to call in sick to work and go take a nap. Thankfully, the hostess kept the hot coffee coming as fast as I could drink it.

Puebla is close enough to the ocean to have its own spin on seafood dishes. When I went back for dinner, I started with a ceviche tostada — tangy whitefish cured in lime juice and onions, piled high on a crisp corn tortilla and topped with buttery slices of ripe avocado. With a one-liter bottle of Mexican Coke, it tasted like a day at the beach.

The taco plate entrée is a fine introduction to the house meats. The barbacoa was smoky and dark, similar to a shredded brisket without any of the gelatinous gristle that often sends gringos running. The carne asada, or seared skirt steak, had all the street cred of a blue-collar fajita with none of the needless frills. The carnitas, broken cubes of browned pork, had a salty hint of bacon in every tender bite.

The mole poblano, though, is what will bring me back to La Poblana. True to its humble origin story, the signature dish was served on a broad platter with rice and beans, unadorned and ungarnished, a generous ladle of the sensuous sauce bathing an otherwise unremarkable hind-quarter of baked chicken. But to pull the moist, dark meat off the bone, to drag it through the molten mystery of chile and chocolate, and fold it in the simplicity of a hot flour tortilla, is an experience not to be missed.

[box_info]La Poblana Café
Chilaquiles     $5.95
Ceviche tostada     $2.95
Mole poblano     $7.25
Taco plate     $6.95[/box_info]

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