When an L.A. chef is heralded as the absolute best, you might expect the food to appear in a fancy restaurant that serves $30 entrées and $16 cocktails. Lucky for those of us who love excellent Mexican food without high prices and chichi ambience, there is the understated Rocio’s Mexican Kitchen in Bell Gardens. That’s where Rocio Camacho, the “Goddess of the Moles,” reigns.
Born in food-obsessed Oaxaca, Camacho began learning the laborious art of making moles as a little girl by watching her grandmother. At 12, she was working in a professional kitchen, and by the time she came to L.A. in 1986 at the age of 19, she already had more meals under her kitchen belt than any Food Network star. She worked off and on at L.A.’s best Mexican restaurants while raising her kids, quietly earning a reputation for her mastery of Oaxacan classics and her inventiveness. Now Camacho has her own place, a humble setting for some of the most sophisticated Mexican cooking in the country.
Perfecting one mole, like the classic dark Oaxaqueño (nuts, seeds, chiles, chocolate, and more), is achievement enough, but Camacho has perfected many. You’ll be able to try three or four of them when you sit down, because they’re drizzled over the chips. If you order a burger or carne asada tacos, we can no longer be friends—you come here for complex, aromatic moles flavored with pumpkin seeds or rose petals or coffee, paired with pork cutlets, salmon, shrimp, chicken, and more. You also come for such masterfully made dishes as mahimahi in a delicious huitlacoche (corn fungus) sauce; miniature empanadas filled with zucchini blossoms, huitlacoche, or shrimp; enmoladas (mole-based cousins of enchiladas); and for dessert, plantains in tequila sauce. The chubby, chile-flecked corn tortillas are house-made, as is the horchata.
Not only does it require expertise, it also takes a ton of time to make a proper 20- to 30-ingredient mole. That you can have a superb one for just $14 at Rocio’s is one of the great gifts of living in Los Angeles. —Colleen Dunn Bates
Best dishes: Miniature empanadas; anything (chicken, mahimahi, shrimp) with any of the moles, especially the poblano, the verde, or the Oaxaqueño; chicken or cheese enmoladas; plantains in tequila sauce.
Dinner prices: Starters $6–$10; entrées $9–$14; desserts $5