Carmen Rocha, a waitress at El Cholo Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles for many years who is credited with introducing the city to nachos, the now-ubiquitous appetizer of tortilla chips, cheese and jalapeno peppers, has died. She was 77.
Rocha, whose photograph appears on one of the restaurant’s souvenir postcards, died at her home in Los Angeles on Oct. 9. The cause was cancer, according to Rand Salisbury, whose family owns El Cholo.
She started working at the restaurant in 1959 and won a following with her warm, outgoing personality. “Carmen was wonderful, to me and to everybody,” actor Jack Nicholson, a longtime regular at El Cholo, said this week. “It’s a community loss,” he said of her death.
For a special treat Rocha sometimes went into the kitchen and made her customers an order of nachos, an item not included on the menu. She followed a recipe she learned in San Antonio, where she grew up, layering tortilla wedges, shredded cheddar cheese and slices of jalapeno pepper, warming the dish in the oven. Before long she had requests from all over the dining room and her nachos were added to the menu.
“Carmen Rocha introduced an iconic dish and helped popularize it,” said Merrill Shindler, who wrote “El Cholo Cookbook: Recipes and Lore From California’s Best Loved Mexican Kitchen” in 1998. “Now, everybody eats nachos. If they were called ‘Carmens,’ not nachos, her name would be remembered forever.”
Rocha worked at the original El Cholo on Western Avenue for close to 40 years and often socialized with her co-workers on Sundays when they stopped by her family’s weekly open house. “She was a very loving person,” said Linda Mendez, a waitress and longtime friend of Rocha. “People came to Carmen and asked her advice, even her customers did. You could talk to her.”
Before Rocha retired in the 1990s, the restaurant lounge was renamed “Carmen’s Cantina.” By then she had been through knee surgery and was working “with a cane in one hand and a pitcher of margaritas in the other,” Salisbury said.
“She would have liked to keep working, but she had to quit for health reasons.”
Born Carmen Salas on Oct. 6, 1931, in Seguin, Texas, she moved to San Antonio with her parents when she was young. She married Rudy Rocha in the 1940s and they moved to Los Angeles in 1959. The couple had six children before they divorced. Several later moved into houses down the street from their mother.
In November 1970, Rocha was at work when she learned that one of her three sons, Robert, who was in the Army, had been killed in Vietnam. She fainted and later couldn’t stop crying, but the next day she was back at work. “People asked her, ‘What are you doing here?’ and Carmen told them, ‘This restaurant is my home,’ ” Ron Salisbury, president of El Cholo and Rand’s father, recalled this week.
When her son’s name was inscribed on the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., his middle name was spelled incorrectly. Instead of Robert Salas Rocha, it was written Robert Silas Rocha.
Carmen and her family spent close to 20 years trying to get the mistake fixed. Their first two appeals to the government were turned down. They were told that only “gross misspellings” were corrected. A third try brought change. The name of Rocha’s son was re-inscribed. She and family members went to see it, as guests of the government, for a Memorial Day ceremony.
“If someone died for their country, he should at least have his name spelled correctly,” Rocha said in a 2002 interview with The Times.
In recent years, Rocha worked as a volunteer at Pasadena City Hall, took computer training classes for senior citizens and kept up her Sunday open house parties.
Rocha is survived by five children, 14 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.