Review: Rocio’s Mexican Kitchen in Bell Gardens made me my birthday meal, beginning a new tradition

Enmoladas with mole Oaxaqueño. Photo by Jay Keyes.

Lest you think that black moles don’t matter, I implore you to get to Rocio’s Mexican Kitchen in Bell Gardens and order anything smothered with the mole Oaxaqueño. The mole Oaxaqueño, the house specialty, is a bitter, nutty, and relentlessly spicy mole negro that is as rich, pungent, and exquisite as you will find in Los Angeles. This hearty, pitch-black sauce would pair well with anything: chicken, pork, fish, tofu, a tree branch. My suggestion is to order it with the Enmoladas ($11), melted Oaxacan white cheese wrapped in fresh hand-made corn tortillas.

Rocio’s Mexican Kitchen is named for Chef Rocio Camacho, and I couldn’t find a way to write this review without my inner-fanboy surfacing. I have grazed on the bar bites and botanas offered at her loud, boozy restaurant in Bell, “Tacos & Mezcal.” I have sampled her successors’ interpretation of her cuisine at Boyle Heights’ “Moles La Tía” after her departure. I thus had a sense of what to expect the first time I dined at Rocio’s Mexican Kitchen. What I did not expect was to take a day off from work the very next day for a 4-hour round-trip drive for more. In fact, a few weeks later on my birthday I decided yet again to trek back up to Bell Gardens, because if I could eat lunch anywhere in Southern California on a day special to me, it ought to be at Rocio’s Mexican Kitchen.

Mole is forged with nuanced and demanding recipes that are ordinarily misunderstood by most Americans. For a chef in the U.S. to be known for their mole is exceedingly difficult. Mole in southern California needs to be superb enough to satisfy Mexican ex-pats who are going to hold it to the near-impossible standard of being at parity with what is served in the mole-sopped regions of Mexico.

L.A. has bestowed Chef Camacho with the title “La Diosa de Los Moles” (“the mole goddess,” from Spanish), but in acknowledgment of our presently ‘woke’ and easy-to-perturb zeitgeist, I will instead suggest the secular title of “mole monarch,” which better describes the situation anyway: if Chef Camacho has as skillful of a peer in Los Angeles of any gender, they have yet to reveal themselves.

Chef Rocio Camacho at Rocio’s Mexican Kitchen. Photo by Agustín Durán.

Nearly as good as Rocio Mexican Kitchen’s mole Oaxaqueño is their assertive mole manchamanteles, a spicy and smoky concoction that goes down easy, but slowly builds intensity until it feels and tastes like a shrub fire in your throat. Mid-way through my oral demolition of the house’s Chilaquiles con Mole ($7.99) with mole manchamanteles, I found myself thankful for the porcine beans and sautéed potatoes served on the side to temper the heat. I attempted to trace back which brilliant bite caused my mouth to combust, but it was difficult to focus with the dopamine coursing across my synapses demanding that I finish my meal and stop screwing around. The chilaquiles comes with sliced raw onions and next time I will ask for extra onions, as they complement the mole manchamanteles well enough that they ought to be part of each bite.

Chilaquiles con Mole Manchamanteles, served with sautéed potatoes and beans. Photo by Jay Keyes.

If a smaller dose is all you desire (bless your restraint), the mole manchamanteles is also available drizzled on the Taco Feo ($3.50). The name translates to “ugly taco,” but I disagree with that description. In terms of taste, this manchamanteles-drenched taco with grilled chicken, fried plantain, and roasted pineapple is unconventionally enchanting and complex — a kinda Frida Kahlo of tacos. Despite mole being Mexico’s official national dish, and tacos arguably being the country’s most important food, mole-based tacos served in the U.S. are usually terrible. This one is not.

Taco Feo: “ugly taco” consisting of flour tortilla, grilled chicken, plantain, red onion, pineapple, and mole manchamanteles. Photo by Jay Keyes.

Although the food served here is most regionally-influenced by the Mexican state of Oaxaca, you mustn’t sleep on the Mole Poblano ($12, with chicken) with its origins in Pueblo. Relative to the other offerings, Rocio’s mole poblano is more soulful than piquant, crafted with ground pepitas, fruit, and chocolate for a composition that bends sweet and buttery. The lightly-seared chicken breast the mole is served over remains mostly pale, ensuring its proper subservience to the gravy’s splendor.

Chicken with Mole Poblano. Photo by Jay Keyes.

Food/Décor/Service: 4.7/3.3/4.1

Taco Scores: Taco Feo (92)

Jay Recommends: Enmoladas with Mole Oaxaqueño; anything with Mole Manchamanteles

Rocio’s Mexican Kitchen7891 Garfield Ave, Bell Gardens, CA 90201; Monday through Sunday from 9:00am-9:00pm; (562) 659-7800;

Complimentary Corn Tortilla Chips in Mole Sauces. Photo by Jay Keyes.
Chocolate Mexicano Frio. Photo by Jay Keyes.
Rice and Beans. Photo by Jay Keyes.
Patio Dining at Rocio’s Mexican Kitchen. Photo by Jay Keyes.
Inside Rocio’s Mexican Kitchen’s small dining room. Photo by Jay Keyes.
Rocio Camacho’s mole-oriented restaurant in Bell Gardens. Photo by Jay Keyes.

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