Food

Counter Intelligence: At Rocio's in Sun Valley, moles reign

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The first thing you may notice about Rocio's Mole de los Dioses, an immodestly named restaurant not far from the Burbank airport, is the cactus. By this I don't mean that there are potted cactus plants around, or pictures of cactus on the walls, or a blinking neon cactus in the window, but that there is cactus on the plate almost everywhere it is possible for cactus to be. (The restaurant is somehow related to the cactus-intensive tortilleria Nopaltilla next door.)

While you might reasonably expect to see grilled cactus paddles alongside the steak or a delicious quesadilla made with freshly fried chicharrones to be teetering on a mountain of the stuff, you will probably be surprised to discover that the pineapple agua fresca has cactus in it, and the tortillas are made with cactus, and the chips are bright, bright green. The surfeit may bring to mind the American Cheese Council omelet recipe from an old Roz Chast cartoon in the New Yorker — "2 eggs, 5 lb. Swiss cheese, 1 tbsp. butter."

Nopales, the cactus, is unquestionably healthful, a source of vitamin C and potassium and bioflavonoids. Tortillas made with nopales taste basically like tortillas, although when it is time for a second round of tortillas, you may well opt for the regular ones, which are somewhat less puddingy inside. Cactus may well cure every disease you throw at it, as well as conquering childhood obesity and providing valuable manganese, but you are not going to change your lifestyle in one night.

You are at Rocio's, no doubt, not for cactus but for mole, the rich, complex sauce made from dozens of pounded spices, chiles and nuts, among other things, including a bit of chocolate. L.A.'s best mole may be a subject for debate, and the conflict between regional styles will never be resolved. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that chef Rocio Camacho makes a greater variety of moles than anyone else — not just the seven traditional moles of Oaxaca, or moles from Puebla or the Distrito Federal, but also versions based on almonds or hibiscus blossoms, tamarind or coffee, tequila or pistachio nuts — unorthodox moles she has carried with her from restaurant to restaurant like a Johnny Appleseed of the metate.

After an apprenticeship at La Casita Mexicana in Bell, she brought her moles to Moles La Tia, in the Maravilla neighborhood of East Los Angeles, and then to La Huasteca, the swank Mexican restaurant in the Plaza Mexico in Lynwood, where she introduced the concept of rotating menus devoted to a single Mexican region before going solo with Rocio's Mole de los Dioses in Bell and, since January, in Sun Valley. Her ink-black Oaxacan mole even won a citywide mole contest a couple of years ago, its rough, sunny complexity edging out Guelaguetza and Tlapazola Grill.

If you have run across an unorthodox "Like Water for Chocolate"-style mole in Los Angeles in the last few years, chances are pretty good that Camacho had something to do with it. She's into that mystical thing here. Half of the menu items have been renamed for goddesses so that the nopales salad becomes diosa quetzal and the shrimp ceviche in a super-spicy marinade of lime and puréed herbs becomes diosa afrodita. The guacamoles, which may include diced serrano chiles or habanero and passion fruit, are called diosa amorosa and diosa sangre ardiente — love goddess and goddess of hot blood.

You will not eat just moles, although you could. There is a kind of mole appetizer, small dishes of several moles arranged around a stack of those green tortillas. It is a mole party on a plate, untainted by chicken or meat: a pounded peanut pepian tinted borscht-pink with beets; a sweet mole flavored with mandarins; a tart mole made with tequila; a dark, oddly sugary coffee mole; or an herb mole that is luridly green. You could compare Camacho's Oaxacan black mole with her mellower mole poblano; with the spicy, smoky manchamantales, (tablecloth stainer); or with her signature mole de los dioses, which has a funky, toasty hint of what I believe is corn fungus, huitlacoche. Is the sauce of poblano chiles with slightly underripe strawberries or the sauce blasted with the Oaxacan spirit mezcal technically a mole at all? We will leave that for the scholars to decide.

Your meal will begin with a small cup of soup, perhaps a spicy shrimp broth or a cream of grasshopper soup whose tart, bacony taste will probably be undermined by the sight of the six-legged croutons floating on its surface. You will eat crisp cornmeal empanadas filled with huitlacoche or with squash blossoms, gooey lakes of melted cheese with chorizo or with jalapeno and onion, or possibly undistinguished Yucatan-style salbute. There is an obscure yet delicious pork dish called carne de chango, smoked with sugar cane and grilled. Camacho has yet to work through her fancy-Mexican-restaurant phase. You'll find pleasant, workmanlike versions of things like lamb mixiote — probably not pit-roasted in agave leaves — and dryish cochinito pibil.

But what you will get is a mole, spooned over veal, steak, fish, chicken breast or shrimp, each of them serving basically as a bland platform for the vibrancy of the sauce. You will vacillate for minutes but end up with the mole de los dioses, which is of a shiny blackness you may associate with new Lamborghinis. And you will be too full for dessert, which is really a shame. The rice pudding is really good, and you would have been the first person on your block to have tasted a neon-green tomatillo marmalade.

jonathan.gold@latimes.com

A restaurant devoted to mole, Rocio's treats the sauce as an art form. And don't forget the cactus tortillas.

LOCATION

8255 Sunland Blvd., Sun Valley, (818) 252-6415, rociosmoledelosdioses.com.

PRICES

Main courses, $16.99-$20.99.

DETAILS

Open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday. Credit cards accepted. Beer and wine. Lot parking. Takeout.

Also at 6242 Maywood Ave., Bell, (323) 588-5536. Open 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Credit cards accepted. No alcohol. Lot parking across the street. Takeout. Main courses, $12.95-$13.95.


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