If you have traveled outside your neighborhood for Mexican food in the last decade or so, you have probably run across the cooking of Rocio Camacho, a Oaxacan-born chef who is occasionally described as a Johnny Appleseed of mole. I first came across her cooking at Moles La Tía in Boyle Heights (although I had apparently tasted some of her dishes at La Casita Mexicana, where she started), and then at Mole de los Reyes in Bell, La Huasteca in Lynwood, Rocio's Mole de Los Dioses in Sun Valley and Tarzana, and Rocio's Mexican Kitchen in Bell Gardens.
At one point I judged her mole the best in Los Angeles in a blind tasting put on by Share Our Strength, and in 2009 I described her mole negro as "so dark that it seems to suck the light out of the airspace around it, spicy as a novela and bitter as tears." When you went to one of Camacho's restaurants, you encountered squash blossom empanadas, habanero-spiked hot wings, and salmon with grapes, but also moles of every type and description, including ones made with pistachios, tequila or coffee. Comparisons to the magical cook in "Like Water for Chocolate'' are not uncommon. Camacho occasionally calls herself the Goddess of Mole.
But if you wander into Tacos & Mezcal, Camacho's new restaurant in the old Corazon y Miel space in Bell, you will find chiles wrapped in bacon, fluffy guacamole with toasted pumpkin seeds, and a brick-red chicken soup with a diabolical slow-punching heat, but really no mole at all. This is her take on a boozy Oaxacan taqueria, a dark, loud place with tequila Old Fashioneds and hand-made tortillas; huge tacos filled with eggs or breaded beefsteak; and small tacos filled with chicken or a vegan preparation of sautéed jackfruit.
There is a longish list of Mexican craft beers scrawled on a chalkboard and a short cocktail list. If you are thirsty for mezcal — and why wouldn't you be — there isn't a formal list; you can ask for advice or scan the selection on the shelves behind the bar. You shouldn't be shy to ask about price — a shot of Wahaka Madre Cuishe is smoky and delicious, but it is also $32.
You order the street corn, neatly bisected cobs blackened on the grill, squirted with cream, dusted with powdered chiles, perched on a haystack of shredded carrots that seems to be there mostly for logistical reasons. "Street corn" seems to be on half the menus in town at the moment, even in restaurants that aren't Mexican, but Camacho's version has the smokiness and the juicy pop that you rarely find even at the street carts that specialize in the dish. There is a lovely mound of chopped octopus with minced onion and sliced avocado, served with thick, pliable sopes to scoop it up with.
The concentration at Mezcal & Tacos may be on what the kitchen calls cazuelas, reinterpreted as small cast-iron skillets sloshing with stews of swordfish chunks with tomatoes and poblano chiles, mushrooms with the truffly corn fungus huitlacoche, or chileajo, soft, chile-tinged braised pork shoulder from Camacho's Oaxaca-state hometown. I liked the cazuela of cactus and onions spiked with fried grasshoppers, which give the stew a certain smokiness and crunch, and the gooey mass of melted cheese with crumbles of chorizo sausage, which are the best things ever to fold into the hot, freshly made tortillas that come alongside. I was perhaps less excited about Camacho's take on the Yucatecan cochinita pibil, pork roasted with a spice paste, which comes across as underseasoned when you compare it with the classic versions at Chichen Itza or La Flor de Yucatán near USC.
But you have come, no doubt, for the tacos. And if you've been to Lotería, Guisados or Tacos Colonia, you understand the idea of tacos de guisados, filled with stews and braises instead of grilled meats, seasoned in the kitchen instead of at the table, and perhaps less dependent on the notion of immediate consumption. At Tacos & Mezcal, many of the tacos are enormous, piles of chopped steak with guacamole, the creamy sautéed chiles called rajas, or even scrambled eggs, mounded over rice or beans, basically filling enough to serve as meals in themselves, or at least enough to take you through a shot of tequila or two.
Other tacos, the ones in the section of the menu labeled From Bell, as opposed to the sections labeled From Campeche or From Oaxaca, are smaller, come three to an order, and are served with wooden ladlefuls of red or green salsa whose presence you will probably forget about until you have finished eating the tacos. Tacos de lechon? Why not, although the delicate slivers of roast pork will not remind you of the last time you ate suckling pig. The barbacoa? Not bad, although you should probably go for a reprise of the chileajo instead, or even the chicken sauteed with dried cranberries and a drop or two of mezcal.
Even if you tend to shy away from Mexican desserts you should probably end with the churros, skinny fried shards filled with cream and doused with a kind of mezcal-sluiced crème anglaise. Can the bartender rustle up a dessert mezcal to go with it? You bet!
Tacos & Mezcal
A chef and longtime mole specialist has opened a mezcal-driven taqueria.
6626 S. Atlantic Ave., Bell, (323) 537-2789.
Appetizers $5-$10; cazuelas $12; big tacos $5-$6; small tacos (three per order) $10.
4 to 11 p.m. nightly. Credit cards accepted. Full bar. Lot parking.
Grilled street corn; Octopus in Love; chileajo; nopalitos y chapulines; Milanesa taco; steak and guac taco; tacos de lechon; churros.