Name of restaurant: Aro Latin
Chef: Rocio Camacho, a self-taught chef from Oaxaca, Mexico, of Moles La Tia, La Huasteca and Rocio's Moles de Los Dioses restaurant fame.
Concept? A new "Latin" restaurant with mostly Mexican-inspired dishes in South Pasadena's bustling Mission Street restaurant row, opened by the same people who own the neighboring modern Indian restaurant, Radhika. So the menu is dotted with faint Indian touches here and there (tamarind sauces, coconut and saffron rice, etc.). The ambiance is an inviting one: laid back, industrial, warm and boisterous.
What dish represents the restaurant and why? Branzino a la parilla, a whole branzino fish that is smeared with a Mexican dried chile and spice paste, then roasted in a banana leaf until it is fall-apart tender. Camacho has a cult following around town for her deft use and noteworthy combinations of dried chiles and spices in her famous moles, and this dish shows off those skills.
Runners-up? Esquite, blackened, shaved, fresh white corn buttered and flavored with smoked paprika, chipotle aioli and salty dry cotija cheese. Sopes de platano, crispy masa bowls topped with pureed seasoned black beans, fried ripe plantain, Mexican runny sour cream and a bright red salsa. Hamachi tiradito with a creamy aji amarillo sauce and pecan-crusted sweet potato.
Who's at the next table? An elderly couple next to us who told one of the servers, "Good job. We'll be back." Up front: a rambunctious table of 10 celebrating a young Latino dude's birthday. Behind: three young women with a reservation who immediately ordered fish mole and duck pipian.
Appropriate for: Date night, or dinner with the parents. That's South Pasadena for you.
Uh-oh: Desserts are still being worked on. Camacho is developing a dessert menu that goes with the rest of the items offered. Skip them for now and order an extra appetizer or glass of wine instead.
Service: On a Thursday night with a wait time of 25 minutes, the dining floor was well staffed. My server checked on me very frequently.
What are you drinking? A frosty pint of Chupacabra Pale Ale on tap from Mexicali-based craft brewery Cucapá.
1019 Misson St., South Pasadena.