The smell of cocoa, quatrelacoche, cecina emanates from his hands. They are magic hands from which magically emerge all kinds of flavors that remind me of a Mexico and a time hidden in my memory.
It’s Rocío Camacho. Many know her as the goddess of moles.
I had the opportunity to chat with her at her restaurant Rocio’s Mexican Kitchen. It’s an unassuming place tucked away in a popular area. But as soon as you cross the threshold of the door, you can realize that there is a real gastronomic treasure there.
Over the years they had told me about Rocío. In fact, we have met at many events and always greet each other with the promise to talk to each other soon.
On this hot September afternoon, I am sitting in front of her. And then I see a face with a kind smile and eyes that shine brightly remembering the difficult years that passed until I arrived at this place, where the most exquisite dishes of the rich and complex cuisine are served from Oaxaca.
“The best compliment is that my mom told me my mole was already as good as hers.”
— Rocío Camacho, the goddess of moles
We get ready to eat and have a long talk, so I tell him to suggest, after all, Camacho is the author of every dish served here.
-Listen, he said to me, try this mahi mahi with Huitlacoche sauce.
– From fish to Huitlacoche?, I ask, a little surprised by the association.
-Try it, he told me with a confident smile.
But the menu is vast and we are all at the table agreeing to share to try different dishes. So we ordered a “manchamanteles” mole, an Oaxacan casserole with cecina, cheese, nopal and chorizo.
-He also brings enchiladas, so they can taste them, and a guacamole, he says to the waitress who serves us.
And for drink we ordered water with cucumber, jamaica and tamarind.
“You’ll like it,” he tells us with absolute certainty.
As the dishes arrive, we continue to chronicle Camacho’s life and experiences alongside his mother and grandmother. “They told me not to go near the fire, although from time to time they let me flip the tortillas there in front of the stove.”
He stops and goes back in time to this kitchen, to this wood-burning stove. To these smells and to these times when he learned to prepare all kinds of dishes.
“From an early age, I learned to do mole. I learned that the ingredients had to be chosen carefully. You had to touch them, feel them, feel the textures, understand the combinations and the herbs”.
“It was like playing,” she admits with a smile that lights her up.
“I buy the ingredients myself, there are over 30 of them and I mix them like we did there,” she says, describing the different types of mole she learned to prepare, among which the Mantamanteles, black, pistachio, herbs, aromatic herbs, mango, passion fruit, seasonal fruit, coffee, white. In total, it has more than 20 mole recipes.
At 15, she already knew most of the culinary secrets that the women in her family pass down from generation to generation. “We are five sisters but I was the only one who liked to cook and of my children, only my son wanted to be a chef, so the legacy of taste goes with him,” she said.
When I listen to her story, I can’t help but imagine the clay stove in the kitchen, the landscape of the Mixteca in Oaxaca, I imagine the conversations between the women of that house, and then I remember of the film “Like water for chocolate”, where cooking was a rite that was learned with patience.
And then came the time to emigrate. To look for other opportunities. He crossed the border in 1987 in search of a dream. “It was very easy to pass. They charged me a hundred dollars and I didn’t even walk,” says the celebrity chef born in Huajuapan de León.
“But my American dream wasn’t to make money,” he says, looking down at his hands. “Really, I wasn’t thinking of buying houses, clothes or cars. All I wanted was to become what I knew I could be, without limits, without borders. I knew I could go very far.”
And he did. Camacho has been recognized by food columnists from Los Angeles Magazine, Los Angeles Times and LA Weekly, in addition to being a regular guest on Univision Los Angeles and Telemundo.
In this dream there were many chapters, such as the opening of an Oaxacan restaurant where he could spread the customs of his people. In this dream, there was a book of ancient recipes and lectures for other women to teach them these secrets of cooking.
But to get there, you had to break the stone. So he started working in restaurants making merits in the kitchen. He worked at La Casita Mexicana before writing the menu for Tamales y Antojitos La Tía, where the mole tastings were the highlight of his presence and it was there that Camacho became a local treasure.
Later he cooked at La Huasteca, Don Chente (these restaurants still have Camacho recipes). His former Sun Valley and Tarzana partners opened the Chiguacle Sabor Ancestral de México, whose menu is too similar to the one Camacho designed for Moles de Los Dioses.
The nickname of the mole goddess was given to her precisely by the critic Jonathan Holmes, who, when visiting her restaurant, was surprised by the quality of the dishes and declared that her food was a “delicacy of the gods”.
The creators of the Michelin Guide (the famous restaurant guide that rates the quality of restaurants around the world) were also surprised. Unbeknownst to her, they ate at her restaurant and it was the Mahi Mahi dish with Huitlacoche sauce that convinced them that she and her restaurant should be in the Guide.
The category in which it falls is that of Bib Gourmand, which lists restaurants with a reasonable price, but with great quality in their dishes.
“This distinction puts Rocio’s Mexican Kitchen, Rocío and the town of Bell Gardens on the gastronomic map of the world,” said José Díaz Romero, co-founder with Roberto Carlos Lemus, of Exquisitamente. “She has more than demonstrated that she has the quality to compete with the best restaurants in the world.”
But it’s not the interviews, or the recognition from other chefs, or the comments from the critics that he values the most. “That’s my mother’s opinion,” she says like a naughty little girl. “Until very recently he said to me, mhhh, I think he lacks a bit of this, or a bit of that…until one day, very seriously, he told me, I think that it’s already like mine and he gave me a hug. It was the most important recognition of my life.
Rocio’s Mexican cuisine
7891 Garfield Ave, Bell Gardens, CA 90201
Phone: (562) 659-7800