When Jaime Martin del Campo and Ramiro Arvizu opened their Bell restaurant 15 years ago, some customers wondered if they knew how to cook.
Accustomed to Mexican food laden with sour cream, melted cheddar cheese and mild salsa that has long been served up in the Los Angeles area, patrons balked at eating La Casita Mexicana's enchiladas covered in pumpkin seed mole, cotija cheese and red onions. Many of the doubters, to the restaurateurs' surprise, were Mexican American.
Regional Mexican cooking isn't a tough sell anymore. Del Campo and Arvizu are staples of food shows on Spanish-language television, and mole aficionados from throughout the region frequent La Casita.
Now the duo are working with three other ambitious and media-savvy Mexican restaurateurs to raise the profile of their homeland's rich regional cuisines even further. Their Taste of Mexico Assn. is gearing up for an October event showcasing some of Los Angeles' best Mexican restaurants.
The owners of the association's four founding restaurants — La Casita Mexicana, Guelaguetza, La Monarca Bakery and Frida Mexican Cuisine — banded together three years ago to help one another navigate the restaurant industry. Taste of Mexico has evolved to promote regional Mexican food, including creative twists on it, through events and media appearances.
"I've always thought there was a need for an association of Mexican restaurants in Los Angeles," Arvizu said. "There's still so much room for us to grow, and that's what the Taste of Mexico is about."
The Mexican restaurant industry is growing too. Despite the recession, U.S. sales rose 1.4%, to $31 billion, from 2007 to 2012, according to research group IBISWorld. Revenue is expected to increase to $34 billion by 2015.
Taste of Mexico's largest endeavor is its annual tasting event, where Los Angeles eateries that the organization deems authentic offer regional fare from areas from Baja California to Chiapas.
The four founding restaurants were the only ones at the inaugural downtown L.A. event, the Taste, which attracted about 800 Mexican food lovers in 2010. The next event, in 2012, boasted 17 vendors and 1,300 attendees.
This year the Taste group expects as many as 25 vendors at La Plaza de Cultura y Artes in downtown Los Angeles, which promotes Mexican American culture.
The five restaurateurs who make it happen are known in the Mexican food world on their own. Del Campo and Arvizu have appeared on Univision numerous times and on Food Network's "Throwdown With Bobby Flay."
Bricia Lopez, the face of her family's Oaxacan restaurant Guelaguetza on the edge of Koreatown, has been featured in a number of publications and is well-known in food circles. Her appreciation for tequila and mezcal has led Los Angeles bars to name drinks after her.
Vicente del Rio, who opened his Frida Mexican Cuisine in Beverly Hills nearly 12 years ago, ran into another association member, La Monarca Bakery owner Ricardo Cervantes, at his restaurant. The pair chatted about the industry and became friends. Soon after, Del Rio met Del Campo, Arvizu and Lopez on a 2006 restaurant tour south of the border sponsored by the Mexican government.
Once home they would get together and talk about where to get supplies, how to promote themselves and what recipes they were developing. It just made sense to start an official group, Del Rio said. But it soon became more than a forum for bouncing ideas off one another.
"We had all been in the business for quite a while, and as native Mexicans, we noticed there wasn't an association like the French and Italian restaurateurs had," Cervantes said. "There were very few Mexicans judging the authenticity of the food."
Gustavo Arellano, editor of OC Weekly and author of "Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America," sees Taste of Mexico's role as promoting regional plates and the restaurants that make them, particularly the small ones that don't garner a lot of attention.
"They'll hold these tastings and say, 'Hey, check this out, and by the way here's this restaurant where you can try this extravagant dish,' and hopefully spark an interest," Arellano said. "You can never have enough people extolling Mexican food."
The Taste event costs about $50,000 to put on, said Cervantes, president of the Taste of Mexico Assn. The group hired an outside company to help organize the event and found sponsors to offset some of the costs. Sponsors have included Nescafe, Avocados from Mexico, restaurant supplies company Sysco Corp. and ProMexico, the Mexican government's investment promotion agency.
Getting restaurant owners to join the organization has been tough, Cervantes said. Many said they didn't have the time to help organize events.
The association is hoping more businesses will join now. The restaurants don't have to be upscale, but they do have to be traditional, Cervantes said.
At Cervantes' bakeries in South Pasadena and Huntington Park, customers use tongs to load their trays with pastries. But unlike in most bakeries, the menu includes fat-free huevos rancheros, quiche chorizo, rows of dulce de leche croissants and whole wheat biscuits sweetened with agave nectar.
He can't say whether Taste of Mexico has helped boost sales directly, but he believes his bakery has gotten more media attention because of it. The restaurants have been featured in the pages of La Opinion, TV segments on Telemundo and food blogs such as Grub Street.
They may be competing with one another in Southern California's vast Mexican food scene, he said, but with the demand in regional and authentic dishes there's no reason they can't all get a piece.
"The rising tide raises all ships," Cervantes said.