Fifteenth Century Dining at La Huasteca

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Dave Lieberman
Five months or so ago, I attended a tasting dinner for chef Rocio Camacho's new menu at La Huasteca, the alta cocina restaurant in Lynwood's Plaza México. As we chatted after dinner, she explained that her true passion was pre-Hispanic cuisine; the native cuisine of Mexico before the arrival of Columbus and the other European discoverers pillagers destroyers of culture adventurers.

She's spent the intervening time perfecting her pre-Columbian recipes and last Friday, I was invited to taste the new pre-Hispanic menu that is now available at La Huasteca.

The entire menu was quite long (there were 22 dishes, plus aguas frescas, mezcales and tequilas), but there were some standouts.

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Dave Lieberman
I don't know what Camacho does to her masa, but her squash blossom empanada, made with a thick corn masa shell, was the lightest such empanada I've ever had, with a crispy shell that turned into tender, just-cooked masa that surrounded a surprisingly intense filling of braised squash blossoms. That same light, fluffy masa was the base for a dodecahedron-shaped corunda, wrapped painstakingly in a yards-long leaf.

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Dave Lieberman
Caldo de piedra (literally, "stone soup") does contain a stone, at least when it's cooking; a burning-hot rock is set into the pot to cook the soup more quickly. A light seafood broth surrounded a single enormous diver scallop which was utterly perfectly cooked; not stringy, not gelatinous.

Pescado Tikin-Xik (pronounce it "tee-keen sheek") is a Mayan recipe that was one of the first pre-Hispanic foods Camacho introduced to the menu; it's pieces of basa fish with achiote, sour orange juice, chile x'catic and tomatoes inside banana leaves, which are then cooked over charcoal. The smokiness of the fire and grassiness of the leaves permeate the entire dish; I wanted to lick the plate clean. This dish has really matured; it's a must-order.

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Dave Lieberman
Barbacoa "Platillo del Jefe" was another excellent preparation. A lot of things get called "barbacoa", but this was traditional: an entire lamb is coated in avocado leaves and wrapped in maguey leaves, then set over a pot filled with water, spices and garbanzos that's been set in a pit. As the lamb roasts, it bastes itself and the excess runs down into the pot, creating a consommé (served on the side) that's salty and addictive. The lamb is shredded with the touch of a fork and served with gorditas, thick tortillas that can be split in half like pitas.

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Dave Lieberman
"Frida Kahlo"
The moles for which Camacho is famous are still on the menu, including an excellent, juicy grilled chicken breast covered half with pipián verde and half with pipián rojo (called "Frida Kahlo", but without the eyebrows). A new addition is mole de los Dioses (literally, "sauce of the gods"), a thick, complex riff on mole negro poured over portobello mushroom and huitlacoche; it was so stunningly earthy that conversation hit a lull as we ate it. The menu offers this in two preparations: over portobello mushrooms, or over filet mignon. I can't wait to try it with the beef.

While there are a number of tempting desserts, including beso de ángel (cherry-vanilla ice cream with coconut and nuts) and bananas flambéed in tequila, the hands-down best dessert was guavas floating in rompope, the Mexican answer to eggnog; simple, but by the time the guavas were done, their juice had flavored the rompope in an eye-opening way.

One thing that Camacho does very well is creative aguas frescas. Not content to stick with tamarindo, melon and horchata, she created a very refreshing, slightly herbal drink of nopales (cactus paddles) and pineapple; a sweet, punchy jamaica with strawberry; and atlaquetzalli, a cold drink similar to horchata, but made from cacao nibs, which lend it a bitter, coffee-like cast.

The food is well worth a trip to Lynwood, both on its own merits and out of curiosity to see a side of Mexican food that, until now, was only available by going to La Diferencia in Tijuana's Distrito Gastronómico.

La Huasteca, 3150 E. Imperial Hwy., Lynwood; (310) 537-8800. This was a complimentary tasting menu.

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