A few weeks back I was invited to speak on a podcast with some other food folks about the state of Mexican cooking in our respective cities. Once the conversation turned from New York and Chicago to Los Angeles, I considered repeating the accepted reality of our Mexican food scene: Where New York is newly proud of its burgeoning taco scene, L.A. has had tacos from every corner of Mexico for decades; in a city that literally used to be in Mexico, the breadth and quality of our regional Mexican food is unsurpassed. These things are so well known they're barely worth repeating.
What I decided to focus on instead is how our massive Latino population means that many of the best chefs cooking Mexican food in Los Angeles are staying in their neighborhoods and cooking for a mainly Latino customer base. I'm not just talking about tacos here, I'm talking about incredibly nuanced, creative cooking — cooking with elegance and style that's fueled by talent as well as tradition.
There are a few chefs who come to mind when discussing this phenomenon: Jaime Martin del Campo and Ramiro Arvizu, who operate La Casita Mexicana in Bell and who earlier this year opened Mexicano in Baldwin Hills, and Eduardo Ruiz, who brought the Mexican gastropub and cocktail den to Bell with Corazon y Miel. But the chef I've been following with the most interest in recent years is Rocio Camacho.
Camacho, a native of Oaxaca, worked her way up in the kitchens of L.A., including a stint at the aforementioned La Casita Mexicana. Since then, her name has been associated with at least half a dozen restaurants, including three called Rocio's Mole de los Dioses, where she cooked so many varieties of mole — of such astonishing diversity and quality — that she earned the title of mole queen of Los Angeles.
More recently, Camacho has been involved with creating menus for Don Chente in Walnut Park and Aro Latin in Pasadena. At Don Chente in particular, Camacho's talent beyond mole became apparent, with certain dishes so refined they'd be right at home in a fine-dining setting. Yet here they were, at a giant restaurant with a mariachi band, in a big-box strip mall in Walnut Park, a neighborhood totally unknown to many Angelenos.
And now Camacho has opened her own restaurant in Bell Gardens, Rocio's Mexican Kitchen. Here, as in the past, she's turning out elegant, soulful Mexican cooking.
Rocio's Mexican Kitchen is a modest affair. The small wedge of a building operates mainly as a takeout place where you order at a counter, and it's possible to pick up a burrito and never get wind of the more exciting possibilities of eating here. There's a small dining room and five tables or so, and if you indicate you'd like to sit and eat you'll get enthusiastic and knowledgeable table service from the one waiter/counterperson.
It wouldn't be a Camacho restaurant without a focus on moles, but the chef sticks to the classics — Oaxaqueño, verde, poblano, pipian and rojo. In the past she's funneled her creativity into wonders such as mole made with tequila and lemon skins; here she focuses her ingenuity elsewhere.
That doesn't mean you should deprive yourself of the opportunity to sample that mole Oaxaqueño, which you can have over chicken, shrimp, salmon or mahi mahi. Fantastically silky and with a depth of flavor that's downright profound, this is mole that might be cast in the starring role of some magical-realism novel, the dark sorcery used to seduce a young lover.
Camacho's touch with more standard menu items makes them utterly memorable. The empanadas are so light and crispy they're almost ethereal in their shattery crunch. The aguachile has fat shrimp bathed in a scarlet sauce spicy enough to alter your consciousness, but also so tangy and balanced that it will have you coming back for bite after excruciating bite. If you order a simple plate of cochinita pibil tacos, you'll be rewarded with a pile of soft, homemade tortillas and a banana leaf holding the most supple, juicy pork, topped with pickled onion.
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All of these things are wonderful but also available elsewhere, if not in quite the same amped-up form. But Camacho takes what she's known for — at its base, sauce — and extends her range with it, particularly on a few fish dishes buried about halfway through the lengthy menu. There's an exuberantly yellow, buoyant, almost fluffy sauce made of squash blossoms that's served over a salmon filet, its taste just on the mysterious edge of floral and vegetal. Even more captivating, the chef returns to an old muse in huitlacoche, the truffle-like corn fungus. (Rocio's Mole de los Dioses is named for a mole "of the gods" made from huitlacoche, and you see it here and elsewhere in empanadas and beyond.) She creates an almost creamy huitlacoche sauce to ladle over mahi mahi, the flavor thick with musk and umami.
If this food were served in some fancy room somewhere, the salmon would be cooked a little more gently; the ribs under a sticky, spicy, aromatic glaze would perhaps be more tender. There would be wine as delicate as the flavor of that huitlacoche to complement this food. But the wonderful thing about Rocio's Mexican Kitchen is right there in the name.
This is Camacho's kitchen, and it's not built on any premise other than showcasing the cooking of an incredibly talented chef.
ROCIO'S MEXICAN KITCHEN | Three stars | 7891 Garfield Ave., Bell Gardens | (562) 659-7800 | Daily, 9 a.m.-9 p.m. | Entrees, $8-$14 | No alcohol | Lot and street parking