At the rate he's going, Karan Raina soon will have his very own restaurant row along Mission Street in South Pasadena. Radhika, which the Punjab-born Raina owns and operates with his wife, Candy Garcia Raina, has been turning out addictive Indian dishes for more than four years now. And in late March, the Rainas opened Aro Latin down the same street, across the Gold Line tracks and across the street from Videotheque. Between all that and the Thursday evening farmers market, which sets up shop near Nicole's Gourmet, you can head to South Pasadena — and never leave.
This is particularly the case for fans of Rocio Camacho, L.A.'s queen of moles, who with Raina designs what comes out of Aro Latin's kitchen. The food is thus a glorious mix of cuisines, whose lineage can be traced mostly to Camacho's native Oaxaca, but with Indian influences from Raina's background and culinary training. And if that's not global enough, the dessert program is overseen by Garcia Raina, who is from El Salvador.
All this is great news for Camacho's many disciples, who have long trekked around this town to eat her fantastic, gloriously sauced cuisine. Years ago we drove to East L.A. for her Moles la Tia, then it was to Tarzana and way up to Sunland (see: getting lost near Bob Hope Airport), where Camacho had two locations of Moles de los Dioses. (Camacho is still at the Sunland restaurant; the other two have closed.)
Camacho, who is from Huajuapan de León, Oaxaca, cooked at La Huasteca in Lynwood, and at Jaime Martin Del Campo and Ramiro Arvizu's fantastic La Casita Mexicana in Bell before opening her own mole restaurants. Raina tapped her to help him open Aro Latin because, well, if you could, wouldn't you?
See also: Rocio Camacho: The Goddess of Mole
Raina knew Del Campo and Arvizu long before he met Camacho, as he's been part of the L.A. restaurant scene since coming here from India in his 20s. Raina had trained in hotel management in India, in their British system, which included a stint in England, then came to Los Angeles, where he ended up managing Mexican restaurants. That's how he met his wife, who had come to L.A. from El Salvador.
The couple opened their first restaurant in 1995, an Indian restaurant also called Radhika — named for Raina's mother — in Alhambra. Raina moved the location of Radhika to Pasadena, opened a second Radhika on Raymond, then relocated to South Pasadena in 2010. The current Radhika, now the only Radhika if you've lost count, is the one on Mission.
That Radhika is only a few blocks away from Aro Latin is fortunate for Raina, since he spends his days working at both restaurants. His wife and business partner oversees Aro Latin's pastry kitchen, but she's actually a full-time nurse, so the restaurants are mostly Raina's domain. And it's a pretty nice domain. Designed by Akar Studios in Santa Monica, the space was previously a bakery. Now it's both swank and comfy, with a huge bar dominating the room and booths along the back to settle into with all that food.
Which brings us back to Camacho, whose sauces are the guiding force at Aro Latin.
"Her expertise with chiles is phenomenal," Raina says. "I play with spices a lot at my other restaurant." Part of what informs the menu at Aro Latin is the unifying principle of spice and sauce, which shouldn't surprise anyone familiar with both Oaxacan and Indian cooking. There are moles, yes, but also salsas and chutneys, relishes and marinades. (For curries: Go out the door and turn left.) "That's why Rocio and I click," he says. "When I'm in the kitchen with her, it takes me back 25 years."
Raina is talking about his training in India, which included its British hotel system but also apprenticing with Indian chefs, who worked by feel and through taste. "Rocio does this amazing sauce with the lamb, with chipotles and honey," Raina says. "In Goa they use something similar."
Raina says he notes a lot of similarities between the cooking methodologies of India and Mexico, not just in the sauces and spices but also in the techniques, particularly pot cooking. Thus the dishes share elements of both. Aro Latin's mole poblano, for example, has Camacho's near-legendary mole sauce, but the chicken is cooked the Indian way, as Raina describes it, pot-cooked and utterly tender.
Other influences on the menu are unsurprisingly Salvadoran but also Peruvian. There's a tiradito with ahi tuna, orange and tequila, and another one with hamachi and aji amarillo. There are sopes and empanadas and a Salvadoran tamal; chaufa de pollo, or Peruvian-style chicken fried rice; a whole branzino cooked in a banana leaf; costillitas, baby back ribs cooked in coconut milk with mango relish; chutney de pescado, snapper with peach-habanero-lime chutney and a glorious pepita mole; and tacos de cazuela, a pretty fantastic dish of lamb with cochinita pibil, served in a cast-iron skillet with housemade cilantro tortillas so you can make your own tacos.
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The lamb is perfectly sauced, a great thing to fork into the warm tortillas. "Like garlic naan, but without the garlic," points out Raina's son Kiran, who works at his parents' restaurant.
"Pot cooking and playing with sauces," is how Raina sums up the food at Aro Latin. "Back to the basics." Well, basic for two longtime, experienced chefs with a particular sensitivity to the nuances of flavor. Basic for the rest of us is more like frowning at the refrigerator. More reason to head to Mission Street and let somebody do the cooking for you.