Legend has it that Mexican mole was originally created for royalty and the gods. It makes sense that it would require nothing short of a deity to take the celestially savory sauce to the higher level. And in the City of Angels, we have our own official mole goddess: Rocio Camacho.
In a city known for its unparalleled Mexican cuisine, Camacho holds her title, Diosa de los Moles (Goddess of the Moles), with graceful confidence. "I was born with this gift. It's something that comes very easily to me," she says.
Camacho's restaurant, Rocio's Mexican Kitchen, stands modestly on a suburban corner in her hometown of Bell Gardens. Her moles are nothing less than virtuosic, attracting a devoted clientele from across the city, eager to taste her brilliant traditional Oaxacan and Poblano moles as well as her inventive, modern interpretations.
Her range in mole is ever-expanding, from the smoky, dark flavors of mole Oaxaqueño to the sunny notes of a fruit-infused golden mole. Camacho prepares an elegant, almond-based white mole, while mancha manteles — the "linen stainer" — may catch you off guard with its spicy rumble, which quickly gathers momentum after a first taste of sweetness.
Camacho is executive chef at Don Chente Bar and Grill, owned by Vicente Ortiz, of the popular family-owned chain El Pescador, but evidence of her culinary genius appears on the menus of numerous other Mexican restaurants in L.A., including La Casita Mexicana and La Huasteca in Lynwood's Plaza Mexico.
After years of working in restaurants, she finally earned her undisputed title after opening Mole de los Dioses in Sun Valley. However, after that restaurant burned down in 2015 in an unresolved case of arson, followed by a split from her business partner, Camacho knew it was time to take her traditional, one-of-a-kind moles to the next level — so she started her own business. In the year since she opened Rocio's Mexican Kitchen, she's been fully committed to her heavenly calling.
Her kitchen is both library and playground. She changes her menu every three months. "I have a lot of respect for the traditional recipes. But I like to give them my special touch. Here, I do what I want," she says, experimenting not only to satisfy her own curiosity for new flavors but also to expose her clients to the mosaic of Mexico's cuisine. "Mexico is so extensive in its gastronomy. I want people to taste as much of it as possible."
With their complex flavors and textures, Camacho's moles tell an ancestral culinary story. She says that while many restaurants and chefs serve very good mole, they rarely demonstrate knowledge of its deep emotional and geographic associations. Camacho's dishes are infused with the smoky essence of wood-fired brasas, which for her evokes the flavor of charred leaves from a generations-old avocado tree in the Sierra Nevadas.
Mole's origin tale has several versions. One says that mole was invented in the kitchen of resourceful nuns, who concocted the first mole when they got news of an impromptu visit by the Spanish viceroy. They frantically threw together every ingredient they could find ... and voilà! Mole was born.
The story Camacho believes to be true is less common but more fascinating. She's certain that the word "mole" comes from "molli," an ancient Nahuatl word for a rudimentary chile sauce made by the Toltecs. This base sauce was mixed with amaranth seeds and the blood of sacrificial victims. It was baked in the sun and formed into bite-size cakes, which were consumed by priests during ceremonial dinners.
Over time, "molli" has evolved to include a large array of ingredients (sans the human blood), in varieties that are not only limited by region, mainly Oaxacan and Poblano, but enhanced by the curiosity and invention of Rocio Camacho and other mole divas.
Camacho takes pleasure in the rich colors and textures of her moles as much as the flavors. In her more recent experiments, she's added sweet wines, or played with coffee and Kahlúa. These days she's in love with one of her more exotic variations: a rich, golden mole that includes mango, passion fruit, golden raisins and a touch of ripe habanero for a spicy kick.
"Es una belleza," she says. She's right: Her mole is a beauty.
Camacho comes from a long line of moleras, which she traces back to her great-grandmother in their ancestral hometown of Huajuapan, in the Mixteca highlands of Oaxaca state. Camacho learned to be a proud molera by watching her grandmother and by helping her mother.
Their matrilineal role as the moleras in their village placed them at the heart of Huajuapan's social life, preparing exquisite mole dinners for every baptism, quinceañera and wedding.
Camacho remembers her mother preparing for parties two months in advance. She would start by cleaning the chilies and laying them out on petates (reed mats) to dry in the sun, before they were toasted on large clay griddles, soaked and softened.
She ground the chilies on metates (large stone slabs) with smoked cacao beans, almonds, pepita seeds, walnuts, peanuts, almonds, amaranth, cinnamon, thyme, oregano, garlic, raisins and plantain.
Once the labor of grinding the ingredients was complete, there was the arduous task of cooking the raw paste in a pot over low fire — six hours of constant stirring.
The result — a soft, pliable paste you can easily scoop with your fingers — is miles from the stiff, mass-produced Doña Maria stuff you can buy in the so-called Hispanic food aisle at Ralph's.
Camacho's mole paste is worthy of contemplation and so delicious you could eat it all by itself, in tiny bits. "Look," she says, pointing to her beautiful creations. "Do you see how complex it is? It's because of its base of chilies and grains." She compares the grittier texture of the Poblano with the smoother Oaxacan mole. Like a true diosa, a mother and creator of life, she says, "I recognize the moles by sight, as if they were my own children."
Once the paste is ready, the rest is easy. It can be diluted to its saucy consistency with a bit of chicken broth and then served with turkey — that native bird of the Americas — or chicken, and even salmon.
Not only an alchemist of flavor, Camacho also cares about cooking healthy food. She's learned to make vegetarian and vegan versions of her dishes, and she puts fresh aloe vera and chia seeds in her jewel-colored aguas frescas to stimulate digestion and revitalize hair and skin. For her, a vegetable-based diet was simply part of her humble upbringing, part of her heritage as a Mixteca, one of Oaxaca's diverse indigenous population. "My family grew up very poor but very healthy. We were always fed very healthy and delicious foods," she says.
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Vegetarianism isn't a novelty in Mexican cooking. After all, the holy trinity of the Mexican diet consists of corn, beans and chili, along with healthful greens such as nopales (cactus), verdolagas (purslane), squash blossoms and the exotic corn fungus huitlacoche.
Recently, more chefs, foodies and health-conscious folks are taking up the "decolonize your diet" movement in an effort to reclaim ancient culinary traditions that return to largely plant-based, precolonial foods. Pork, beef and dairy products, common culprits of obesity, diabetes and other dietary malignancies, are all foods that migrated to the Americas from Europe. An obesity epidemic has hit Mexico hard in recent years. The 2012 National Survey of Health and Nutrition found that nearly 56 percent of Mexico City's population was overweight or obese. In a city of around 21 million, that's a big problem. So the decolonized diet could be a healthy solution and connection to Mexico's indigenous history.
Camacho cares deeply about passing along culinary and cultural knowledge to new generations. She hopes to start a series of casual classes to share her knowledge of traditional Mexican foods, starting with the basics and ingredients, eventually moving into sauces. "A lot of our young people in this country don't know about our traditional foods," she says. "Their parents didn't get a chance to talk to them about our gastronomy. People ask me, why don't you guard your recipes more? I tell them, there's no reason to keep them to myself. It's good to share. It's better to teach."
ROCIO'S MEXICAN KITCHEN | 7891 Garfield Ave., Bell Gardens | (562) 659-7800