Sixteen years. That’s how long Benos Bustamante worked at MAS before opening his own restaurant last year, with partner Francois Adabie. Now that he has, many are wondering: “What took so long?”
For much of Bustamante’s time as a server and manager at MAS, he dreamed of introducing Charlottesville to the food of his native Oaxaca. But, he never could find the right place – a convenient location with a small and intimate setting, where food could be the focus. Then, last year, an opportunity arose just steps from MAS, when No Limits Smokehouse suddenly closed. Bustamante leapt. It was just what they had been looking for. “The location and size were too perfect to pass on,” Bustamante said.
To execute his vision, Bustamante brought along two MAS veterans. Mexico City native Efrain Hernandez spent a full decade cooking at MAS, including seven as head baker, responsible for the restaurant’s bread, empanadas, tartaletas and desserts. Jose Zaragoza, of Guanajuato, spent three years at MAS, most recently as head prep cook, where he became so trusted that some dishes could only be prepped by him.
At Conmole, they return to the cuisine of their native Mexico. Together, Hernandez, Zaragoza, and Bustamante create dishes that draw on the food of their childhoods, particularly the cooking of Bustamante’s mother and grandmother. And so, you won’t find chips and salsa. Instead, Conmole offers an ever-changing menu centered around traditional Oaxacan cuisine, with influences from other Mexican regions as well.
The food industry has swooned. When chefs were asked to name the best thing they ate in all of 2019, three of our area’s most accomplished chefs named a Conmole dish. Jose de Brito (Fleurie, Petit Pois, 2016 James Beard Award Semifinalist) chose Mole Negro con Pollo. Loren Mendosa (Prime 109, Lampo, 2015 C-VILLE Best Chef) chose Masa Gnocchi in Mole. And, Tim Burgess (Bizou, Bang!, The Space, Charlottesville Mt. Rushmore Chef) chose Grilled Cactus.
Bustamante himself is partial to the moles. “Mole! Mole! Mole!” he says when asked to name his Conmole favorites. Those mole sauces have become so popular that the restaurant eventually plans to package and retail them, prompting a recent name change from Comal, the restaurant’s initial name, to Conmole. Bustamante’s favorite is Camarones con Frijol Molido Mole, tender shrimp bathing in a silky, smoky mole of roasted back beans. Hernandez, meanwhile, cites the Enfrijoladas con Carne Asada and Chipotle Crema – hanger steak with quick-fried tortillas, refried black beans, queso fresco, chipotle cream and sliced avocado. And, Zaragoza likes the the Chuletas with Tres-Chiles Mole – lamb chops in a mole of three varieties of dried chiles.
Check back tomorrow for The 2020 Charlottesville 29.