Rocio Camacho, whose rich sauces made Moles La Tía in East Los Angeles the darling of the local foodies and bloggers, suddenly disappeared from the culinary scene last year. The food was still good at Moles La Tía, but not quite as good, and the local food boards lamented the loss of a great chef.
A couple of weeks ago, Rocio surfaced and contacted Javier Cabral, the Teenage Glutster. She's the incoming executive chef at La Huasteca in Lynwood's Plaza México, one of the only upscale Mexican restaurants in the entire region, and is revising the menu to include some Yucatán specialities and some of her famous sauces.
Javier and Rocio arranged a tasting dinner for local foodies, and I wended my way through the rain to Lynwood to try the new dishes.
There were nineteen separate things in this free tasting, but here are the standouts:
Chef Camacho's salsa dragón, made of deliberately-burned chiles, olive oil and cinnamon, was a black sludge with a smoky, rich taste, a very slow but meaningful burn of chile heat, and a texture akin to the nut sauces of Spain. It was by far the most popular salsa, and were it available in pints, it would make a killing.
Chicken canapés were topped with mole negro, the sauce with thirty-two ingredients, including bitter chocolate, avocado leaves, various toasted herbs and the extremely hard-to-find chile chihuacle negro. This is the king of Oaxacan sauces, a dark brown and extremely thick drape that complemented the chopped grilled chicken absolutely perfectly. Smoky, very slightly sweet, and not too spicy, with dozens of flavors warring for primacy, this was my favorite dish of the night.
Also excellent was the mole de café, a shrimp covered in mole made with chile chihuacle rojo, coffee and Kahlúa. The coffee served for the bitterness that mole needs; the Kahlúa was mostly a creamy texture rather than a distinct taste. The shrimp it covered was slightly overcooked, but the sauce was the star: it would go perfectly on roast or grilled turkey, chicken or even fish.
Panuchos yucatecos were small masa discs, like tiny sopes, topped with seasoned black bean paste, cochinita pibil (pit-roasted, achiote-marinated pork) and pickled red onions. The cochinita pibil was unbelievably moist, softer even than the bean paste. If cochinita pibil isn't on the menu as a full main course, it should be.
Pescado tikin xik (the last word is pronounced "sheek") is red snapper marinated in achiote and sour orange juice, then grilled on a banana leaf and served with an habanero salsa. The fish was cooked absolutely perfectly, moist in the center; the chile heat was muted, lending only the habanero's sweetness to the dish.
Crema de chaya, a cream soup made with a vegetable native to the Yucatán, was very savory, but was served lukewarm. According to chef Camacho, overcooking chaya turns it bitter; while the flavor was a revelation, like spinach without its iron bite, serving room-temperature cream soup may be a hard sell to the American palate.
Of the desserts, the best was carrot flan with habanero. Chile in dessert may sound wrong, but it was necessary to keep the sweet carrots and custard from becoming cloying. Honorable mention goes to the surprising and surpassing mermelada de tomatillo surrounding a spoonful of somewhat mushy arroz con leche; a little more attention to the rice and that will be the dessert to order.
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The agua de chia con pepino, a mixture of chia seeds (yes, that chia), melon and cucumber is going to haunt my memory the next time the mercury climbs into the 90s and the humidity plummets.
The new menu, with some tweaks, should be available in a couple of weeks. La Huasteca is just a few minutes up the 710 from Long Beach; it's the perfect place to get lunch or dinner on the way to or from LAX from la naranja. It's well worth the short trip from OC for food that is essentially unavailable here.
As were that not enough to look forward to, chef Camacho talked about her wish to open a restaurant featuring pre-Hispanic foods, perhaps in Huntington Park. I say go for it--bring on the huevos de hormiga.
La Huasteca, 3150 E. Imperial Hwy., Lynwood; 310-537-8800.