Huasteca:Pre Hispanic Food In L.A Finally
Every once in a while I get a random phone call from chef Rocio Camacho, “mijo, este Sabado voy a estar cocindo _______ y quiero que lo pruebes.” Usually, its just an update on which state she will be covering for her monthly Mexican gastronomy series at La Huasteca. But this last time around it was for something a little more exciting: A brand new Mexican Pre-Hispanic menu at La Huasteca.
I was rather ecstatic. There is no Mexican restaurant in L.A that has attempted this. There are a few phenomenal ones that masterfully purvey ultra traditional regional classics yes, but not many have taken a stab at Alta Cocina, the haute cuisine of Mexico before the Spanish Conquest. Food that is inspired by the ever sustaining food of Aztec and Mayan cultures; dishes with bugs, wild meats, foraged vegetables all whose flavor is of the most pungent and unabashed.
In order to make this happen, La Huasteca had to take it up several notches. Camacho just feels like industrial ingredients don’t suffice for the new concept that they are going for. And because of that, she does things above and beyond other Mexican restaurants. She actually planted a lot of hard to find pre-hispanic herbs around the restaurant. Herbs like the elusive, spinach-like Chaya and the highly aromatic Hoja Santa. These herbs are vital in the new angle that they are dishing up and what better way than to get ingredients than growing it yourself? She also makes her own chorizo and steams her own preservative-free fluffy masa.
That being said, I had the immense pleasure of being the first to taste these flavors this last week over a 23 course tasting dinner. Brace yourselves. Each heartfelt dish has a fascinating story all on its own that I will be covering in other posts.
Starting off with the utmost vital staple of Mexico, the tortilla.
Chef Rocio’s Tortilla: The Best In Los Angeles
Do not underestimate the power of a good tortilla. It has the capability to either make or break any meal. Here, it was nothing less of magnificent. She makes the fresh maize masa every day. Down to the steaming of the grains, the grinding of them, she does it the way it was done before preservatives were introduced to it. And what a fluffy, pillowy difference indeed. To eat one of her preservative-free handmade tortilla is like the same difference as eating a machine made one to a regular–preservative maintained–hand made one. A revelation in each light, piping hot bite. She adds assorted chile and vegetable powders to color and lightly flavor each tortilla according to the dish that it will be accompanying.
And then we go on over the Aguas Frescas.
Agua Preciosa “Atlaquetzalli
Translating to “precious water”, this Oaxacan drink is the epitome of what chef Camacho is going for. Elaborated with ingredients like toasted cacao beans, cacao blossoms, wild flower honey, black mint, Rose Water…this aphrodisiac drink produced a feeling of ecstasy with its lightly sweet, aromatic and milky qualities. This sacred agua fresca somehow didn’t make the status quo of Horchata and Tejate and was lost in time somewhere. Chef shared the interesting myth behind this drink involving a woman assigned to gather each ingredient.
Empanada De Flor De Calabasa: The Fluffiest In L.A
Believe it or not, Empanadas are pretty O.G. Especially the way she makes them here, without (Calcium Propionate) and enlivened with a little baking soda creates these beautiful corn pastries of unrivaled texture; light and fluffy and not heavy. A rarity in the fried masa pantheon of Antojitos. The filling was scarce and cheese less and only a scoop of thick Guacamole not watered down and drowned in it.
Corunda Michoacana: Origami Through Food
Basically a Tamal from the state of Michoacan, these are unique in the way they are wrapped and eaten. Unwrapping this dodecahedral shaped treat was as exciting as unwrapping a birthday gift from your rich uncle that only showed up during holidays or something. The masa interior was moist, almost creamy. There was a tiny filling of cooked down cheese whose nuttiness went all the better with the roasted tomatillo salsa that accompanied the dish.
Aguacate Relleno De Ceviche Verde
A ceviche mixto was prepared unlike many others in town, with only pureed cilantro, serrano, lime and garlic. Very unassuming looking but pretty damn exuberant in its bright, clean flavors. The fact that it was plopped atop a halved out avocado and served with a horizontally cut, crisp plantain chip boosted this dish even farther from the rest. Adding a starchier more substantial crisp to the chewy shrimp-octopus-fish combination. Bassa was used here as it was she had on hand.
Puchero Vaquero: A Rustic Beef Soup From Veracruz
This hearty stew contains a rich beef broth brimming with long pieces of Carne Seca, north Mexico’s beloved cured meat. When soaked up, the texture is somewhere between beef jerky and a really thin cut flank. Starchy vegetables such as green plantains, carrots and sweet potatoes make up the rest of the ingredients.
Huatape De Camaron: Pre Hispanic Tamaulipas Pride
This was a favorite of mine for the night. A minimalist Nahuatl shrimp chowder if you will. This is an esteemed but forgotten soup of the Tamaulipas state of Central Northeastern Mexico that is made with only 4 ingredients: Tomatillo’s, Green Chiles, Lime and then thickened with a little cooked masa roux. The flavor is straightforwardly simple but absolutely satisfying. Especially when you bite into the julienne lime strips that are swimming around the broth.
The last soup was the elusive Caldo De Piedra of the Mixteca region of Oaxaca. A subtle seafood soup that is actually cooked with 3 heated rocks that she imports from Mexico. The rocks cook the scallops beautifully while the octopus and shrimp tend to be on the well done side. But this dish was even too elusive for my camera as I somehow didn’t take a picture of it.
Cactus Salad With Cactus Fruit Vinaigrette and Crushed Grasshopers
Another favorite of the night for me. The lightly sour cactus was cooked beautifully keeping its unique texture in tact without none of the naturally occurring oozing slime . The Tuna dressing was nice and different, not as sweet as I thought it was going to be but more floral. And who needs croutons when you have crispy, salty grasshopper segments. If you’ve never had them before, this dish would be the perfect way to leeway into them. I just describe them as “salty raisins”.
Tikin Xic: Yucatan Baked Achiote Marinated Fish Wrapped in Banana Leaves
This was a favorite of the entire table. A vast improvement since the first time I tried this in some other tasting she held a few months back. This Pre-Hispanic preparation is common in the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico, which you will find to be a whole other world of Mexican food. Banana leaves maintain the thin bassa fillet moist and lightly perfumed with its banana essence. And Achiote can’t help but remind you of countless al pastor or chorizo tacos that you’ve had before. She slathered some more of that wondrous achiote sauce on top of fillet this time around, along with a sauteed onion. Made all the difference.
Camarones Isla Mujeres: From The Island of Women
Named after a small island in the state of Quintana Roo. This dish was truly intriguing, sauteed shrimp in a beautifully emulsified subtle salsa made out of olive oil and serrano chiles, then topped with roasted black sesame seeds for crunch. It is served with a stunningly hued beet-potato mash. The rich sauce reminded of another island named dressing, thousand island. All together, a rather unique dish. Although by this point I’m noticing that the chef has to work on her proteins, these were overcooked as well.
“Frida Kahlo”: Moles Just As Frida Liked It Herself
Simply named on the menu as “Frida Kahlo”. I was intrigued to see what the chef would bring out. And as soon as the plates were ushered out, I realized. It was beautiful. Two of her time honored pipianes–one of toasted pumpkin seeds and the other of cooked peanuts–served side by side a top some seared chicken breast and julienne’d vegetables. Chef Rocio found out that this exact same dish, served how it was here was apparently a favorite dish of the famous Mexican women artist herself. I need not poetically wax about her moles as I’m sure you all have heard her story when I first discovered Rocio at Moles La Tia.
Barbacoa “Platillo Del Jefe”
Chef was eager for me to try this dish. She said that she worked hard at it and its the restaurants most popular dish. And at first taste i saw why. The meat was not fall off the bone but not overdone, but the thing I couldn’t grasp was the smokiness. Restaurant barbacoas usually don’t hold a bone next to an authentic back yard one, and Rocio knew of this, lamenting over the fact that “pues no
puedo tener un poso aqui adentro” (can’t have a earth oven in the restaurant!). But yet how was the flesh so damn smoky? Mezcal. She said that she cooks it every two days with a whole lot of it for flavor. Pre-Hispanic liquid smoke?
Mole De Los Dioses: None Other Than Huitlacoche
Last but not of the savory least. Her “highest achievement” as she called it in Spanish. A pitch black Mole that makes mud look like water and made out of none other than Huitlacoche, the delicacy fungus that grows on some lucky ears of corn. She flies it in frozen instead of the vinegary standard canned ones that are the standard here in Los Angeles. “Earthy” begins to describe this dish but it is simply not enough to capture just how intense it is. Just a tad sweet since she adds a little raisins to the sauce to root it down to earth even more. She serves it with rare fillet mignon medallions as if that wasn’t enough. Aztec A-1 sauce?
Now it was time for her primal inspired sweets.
Starting off with the chef’s favorite:
Beso De Angel
Rocio’s pride and joy apparently. It’s an ice cream that she prepares herself, its made out of things like walnuts, coconut, cherries, rose water and a bunch of other things that somehow come together seductively. Since she makes it by hand without any stabilizers or gums, the texture is more of the rustic grainy, icy kind. It’s served with those sweet, cream filled Mexican wafers that every Mexican-American kid grew up with.
Flan De Chile Pasilla and Orange
A flan spiked with the raisin-like subtle sweetness of Pasilla heat and orange. This flan was accepted in the table with glee. Although I thought, the orange was a bit too strong for the chile flavors, almost got completely lost. I liked it, but upon further etic inspection it seemed that the flan was a little broken with seperated layers.
Flambeed Ripe Plantains in A Tequila Caramel Along With A House Wild Berry Crepa
Her Pre-Hispanic rendition of Banana’s Foster I guess. It was pretty hard not to like this dish with the addition of cream, brown sugar and tequila to coat the crispy edged plantain. The crepe was also surprisingly addictive, stuffed with bright tasting raspberry-blueberry compote.
Guayabas Con Rompope
My favorite dessert of the night. These were slowly cooked Mexican yellow guavas smothered in a creamy Rompope sauce, which is like the Mexican version of egg nog. I liked how the braised guavas jaw-shatteringly crisp seeds were left whole and with full texture. She is perfecting her recipe to make her own Rompope soon.
Real De Mexico Tequila: High Quality Drink To Go With High Quality Food
A big thank you to Chuy Tovar of Real De Mexico Tequila for pairing each dish with his nonpareil highlands smooth spirit. Top quality food can only be paired with Tequila of the same quality.
Chef Rocio Camacho: Holding Her New Pre-Hispanic Menu With Pride
After knowing Chef Rocio for a little over a year I am still surprised at her amount of passion and dedication she naturally has towards all Mexican gastronomy. She describes each dish on the menu as “her own children” actually, since she spent so much time on each progressively perfecting it. She just has an innate gift for cooking ingredients, telling me how her mind goes crazy with different ideas whenever she sees fresh ingredients.
La Huasteca’s new menu is still a work in progress, it is not easy to bring a whole new cuisine to a city that has never heard of anything like it before. But with chef Rocio’s burning passion, I am sure it is only going to get better…
3150 E. Imperial Hwy.
$20-30 per person
*Agua Preciosa drink is only available on some days, make sure to call ahead. If not available, Tejate (always on menu) is almost same thing.