To get to Camacho’s Place, you will need to journey through forsaken realms and lands with no songs. As your GPS guides you over El Centro’s crumbling roads through dusty desert fields juxtaposed to irrigated cattle farms, you’ll repeatedly check it to see if it’s guiding you to the right address. Reassure yourself that this place HAS to be good if it’s remained open for nearly 75 years while being this far away from civilization. I was told that there’s a man from Orange County who flies here via helicopter. Probably the smart thing to do if you care about your tires.
Camacho’s Place, opened in 1946 by Richard Camacho and his wife, Juanita, is indeed best referred to as a “place” rather than a restaurant. It is a dining room surrounded by a museum that preserves the memories of a family that has owned it for three generations while photos on its walls pay homage to the people they’ve fed and entertained therein, from friendly neighbors to Hollywood film stars to literal royalty like Prince Harry, who rolled in with an entourage of 40 a few years ago.
Mexican cuisine is served here and, even if it is not particularly authentic, the people who serve it to you are as real as you’ll find. And, by that, I’m mostly referring to Richard and Juanita’s granddaughter, 68-year-old Rosamonde (“Rosie”) Cuellar, a sharp woman with a dust-dry wit who runs the kitchen. Tommy, her gregarious husband, helps out as a waiter. On the Tuesday afternoon I was in, the restaurant was empty, so I sat across from them, these two strangers who were serving me their food, and we ate, talked, and laughed. Good people.
The food is superb for what it is: home cooking, more soulful than precise. I ordered the “Special Quesadilla,” Camacho’s Place’s signature dish, copied and imitated by other restaurants in Imperial Valley. It consists of gooey melted cheese in a deep-fried pastry shell that visually resembles a very large empanada, but is chewier than you’d expect. The taste and texture reminded me of the Portuguese cheese rolls I grew up eating for breakfast. Rosie shared with me samples of her rice and beans, the latter of which literally disintegrated on my tongue like some kind of Ferran Adrià culinary science experiment. Truly melt-in-your-mouth!
However, it was “Rosie’s Special Carne Asada Taco” that was the best thing I ate here. Abandon the idea that this taco will use the de rigueur thin-cut citrus-marinated flank steak that you get in most carne asada tacos in the U.S. Here at Camacho’s Place, they use a thick coarse-fibered chop of flap steak that has been cut against the grain, and benefited from a marinade before being blasted with blistering heat, resulting in a heavily-seared carne asada that wears a well-charred caramelized coating on the outside, and a tender, soft medium-rare consistency inside. Most Mexican restaurants in America that prepare carne asada are unable to operate a grill with this level of competence, and that’s the primary reason why “Rosie’s Special Carne Asada Taco” is one of the very best you’ll ever have. The other reason is the buttery, rich guacamole made from Hass avocados. Everything is wrapped in a flour tortilla, Mexicali-style. It all tastes a bit salty, but it works — the flavors are explosive, and the textures magnificent.
The menu has Americanized over the years out of necessity. When it was founded, Camacho’s Place primarily served and entertained the area’s braceros as a raucous evening hang-out with a pool table, cold beer, and live musicians. Eventually the white farm-owners and Naval trainees in the community learned about the fun and food, and brought their white friends, and the braceros stopped coming in due to this changing dynamic.
The power to make a restaurant less or more authentic does not reside with its cooks as much as it resides with its customers. When you’re a restaurant in a small community, watering down your menu is not pandering, it’s survival. The salsa, for example, although robust and flavorful, is quite mild. “We need to make it for ‘everybody’,” Tommy reasoned. Rosie suggested that the “Pork Chile Verde” is what I should order next time for something more bona fide, but I see no reason to — if I wanted that, Mexicali is just 30 minutes south. I’d rather continue to sample Rosie’s treasure trove of unique recipes and Mexican-American mash-ups, which themselves have inspired adaptation by other area restaurants, birthing a developing regional cuisine of its own.
Taco Scores: Rosie’s Special Carne Asada Taco (96)
Jay Recommends: Rosie’s Special Carne Asada Taco, Special Quesadilla
Camacho’s Place; 796 W Wahl Rd, El Centro, CA 92243; Tuesday through Saturday from 12:30pm-8:00pm; (760) 352-5810