For the past few years, Rocio Camacho has been spreading her love around Los Angeles, in the form of mole. Beginning as a cook at Moles La Tia in East L.A. and then at her own venture, Rocio's Moles de los Dioses, Camacho has redefined mole for some of us, and significantly heightened the experience for many others.
Beginning with the staple moles of Oaxaca, where she grew up and attended cooking school, Camacho moved on to increasingly complex moles — moles made with coffee, moles made with white chocolate and wine. In Los Angeles, a city with a thousand moles, Rocio Camacho is the undisputed queen.
And now she has turned her attention to two new ventures in an attempt to spread the love even further. Camacho consulted on the menu at Aro Latin, a new pan-Latin restaurant in South Pasadena. She's also acting as chef at Don Chente Bar & Grill, a large Mexican restaurant in a shopping center in Walnut Park.
In many ways, for better and for worse, Aro Latin is the more interesting endeavor. A collaboration between Camacho and owner Karan Raina, Aro's menu is a cultural mishmash that encompasses both Camacho's Oaxacan cooking and Raina's Indian heritage (he also owns Radhika, the restaurant up the street). So there's chicken with mole poblano, but also ribs cooked with coconut milk and served with fresh mango.
See also: Rocio Camacho: The Goddess of Mole
The restaurant is in a beautiful space occupying a corner storefront on South Pasadena's picturesque Mission Street. Huge windows look out over the street on two sides, and the interior is wood-lined and swanky, only partly compromised by the intense amount of television happening on the interior wall: As if the two large screens above the bar weren't enough, a live feed is projected onto an adjacent façade, making one side of the restaurant a literal wall of television.
Dining at Aro Latin is an odd experience. Here you might come across the best tortilla soup you've ever had, the very essence of chile and chicken and corn — only to later encounter dishes that fail in an elemental way. It almost feels as if there's both a genius in the kitchen and a cook who's missing basic training.
While the chips and salsa cost $5, they are worth every penny. You get a trio of salsas, which rotate but almost always include a smooth pecan walnut concoction that's rich and complex, bitter and creamy, and utterly fantastic.
Meanwhile, a gorgeous nutty green mole comes over a fillet of snapper. Too bad, then, that the fish was undercooked when I had it. Though the shrimp aguachile starts off well, the brightness of the sauce ends in an oddly bitter place, like raw grass.
And the mole poblano? This is where the genius shows. No surprise: It's amazing.
As for Don Chente, the place initially presents as the bland cliché of a large corporate chain. It's in a big-box strip mall with a Marshalls and a Petco, and the building has the fake-adobe, neon-signed visage of a concept thought up in a 1980s boardroom.
But stroll through the plaza in front of Don Chente on a Sunday afternoon, and live music and a festival atmosphere akin to a town square in Mexico begin to assuage your fears. Past the statue of a dude in a barrel and through the doors, you'll find yourself in Don Chente's large bar area, which likely offers more live music coming from a small stage in the corner. There's karaoke on Mondays and Wednesdays, a Spanish rock cover band on Fridays and a DJ on Saturdays.
Judging by the well-dressed families in celebratory mode, Don Chente seems to be Walnut Park's go-to spot for special occasions. It's a date night, anniversary, birthday dinner type place, with bottles of wine on the tables denoting a certain level of fanciness. In front of the kitchen, a large glassed-in area is topped with a trim of metal flames, and a sign reads "El Comal" in large letters. Behind the glass, a woman makes tortillas.
While it looks like a corporate restaurant inside as well, there's a hint of heart here that can't be seen from the exterior. Thankfully, the food couldn't taste less like the premade glop you get at the big Mexican "bar and grill" chains that dot America.
The moles are fantastic — that's almost a given — and you can choose from mole poblano, the darker mole oaxaqueño or a pepian rojo or a pepian verde, both made with pumpkin seeds. While I could never resist ordering the enchiladas trio, which allows you to taste three different moles, the real revelations came from other sections of the menu.
There's a cream of poblano soup here that is one of the best things I've eaten all year, its vegetal, slightly spicy poblano flavor underpinned by the richness of almonds, which Camacho uses to thicken the soup. The corn soup is equally luscious, the sweetness of the fresh corn grounded by the nutty qualities of its dried counterpart, which many corn soups miss.
Unlike Aro Latin, Don Chente serves one of the best aguachiles around, its vibrant green sauce bright with lime and chile, the shrimp almost creamy, the avocado topping beautifully ripe.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given Camacho's area of expertise, the best dishes here take their defining flavor from sauces — and the further you get from saucy dishes, the less exciting the food. The pollo rostizado a los 7 chiles, a half chicken roasted with a rub of chiles, didn't live up to its fiery name; it was fine but fairly boring compared with the fireworks offered by many dishes here. Put the carnitas next to the cochinita pibil, and the saucier one — the cochinita pibil, cooked to a stewy ideal with orange juice and achiote — kicks the slightly dry carnitas' ass.
A large chunk of the menu is dedicated to steaks and such, but the more modest dishes, such as a pozole made with beautifully tender pork, are the ones worth your time.
The main difference in quality at Don Chente seems to be that Camacho is actually overseeing the kitchen in a more hands-on fashion than at Aro. Her recipes are quite magical at both places, but Don Chente executes on a higher level. (It's also a marvelously friendly restaurant — waiters burst with excitement to share the food with you. "We hope you enjoy our authentic Mexican cooking," our waiter beamed at us on an early visit, and you could tell his hope was sincere.)
The interesting thing about Camacho's cooking is that even when it is presented in very different contexts — and apart from a few similar mole dishes, these are two very different restaurants — you can taste something deeper in this food. Camacho herself has talked about the spiritual elements of her cooking, saying that she has to devote herself, emotionally, to each dish and give it the proper time. Across the board, from her salsas to her moles to the bright green exuberance of Don Chente's aguachile, you can taste a certain metaphysical energy.
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SHOW ME HOW
Or maybe it's just really, really good. Call it love; call it the best mole in town. Either way, it's damn delicious.
ARO LATIN | 1019 Mission St., South Pasadena | (626) 799-9400 | arolatin.com | Daily 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; dinner, Mon.-Thu., 5-10:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sun., 5-11 p.m. | Entrees, $16-$29 | Full bar | Street parking
DON CHENTE | 2144 E. Florence Avenue, Walnut Park | (323) 585-8900 | donchentebarandgrill.com| Mon.-Wed., 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Thu. 11 a.m.-mid.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-2 a.m.; Sun., 10 a.m.-11 p.m. | Entrees, $7.99-$16.99 | Full bar | Lot parking, valet available weekend evenings