You likely recognize Jaime Martin del Campo and Ramiro Arvizu, the upbeat cooking team behind longstanding Bell restaurant La Casita Mexicana. Their image is fairly iconic, particularly in the Mexican-American community, where the two have been watched weekly on various cooking programs and cooking competition shows across both Telemundo and Univision. But it's not uncommon to find the affable Martin del Campo and Arvizu still hard at work at La Casita Mexicana, which has been going strong in Southeast L.A. for more than fifteen years.
Eater sat down with the pair to talk about their time at La Casita Mexicana, their upcoming new restaurant Mexicano, the changing landscape of L.A.'s Mexican food and how access to ingredients trumps all.
How did La Casita Mexicana first come about? Arvizu: It started with a dream, you know? Jaime came across my path, we both were working for the airlines, and he’s the one that pushed me. He said, what future do you have here? You love to cook, I love to cook, why don’t we come up a concept of the food that we miss, that we couldn’t find here. Well, that was back then, almost 16 years ago.
Martin del Campo: It was hard, back then, to find real traditional Mexican food. People had this misconception about Mexican cuisine, so when we went out to get real food like our grandmothers used to cook, we couldn’t find nothing. We were like, what is all this cheese and sour cream? We don’t need that.
People would walk in and ask for burritos, and we would say no
We started with only six tables and an open kitchen. It was hard, people would walk in and ask for burritos, and we would say no, we don’t sell that. Then they would tell us that it’s not a Mexican place, but it is. There’s a reason we don’t eat that in Mexico. So why don’t you try this mole, this pipian? We had to reeducate people to taste the real flavors of our cities.
Bell is such an interesting place to make that kind of stand on authenticity. What made you start here? Arvizu: It was the only place we could afford!
Martin del Campo: I think the rent was like $500.
Arvizu: We couldn’t afford the Westside, downtown or even Downey, which is closer to us. This was affordable, and so I said let’s give it a chance. I don’t see a restaurant like the one we want to open around here, so let’s try.
And that was fifteen years ago. Arvizu: For me, it’s like I started yesterday. The same energy, the same enthusiasm, the same love for what I do. And so with Mexicano, I’m taking it as another challenge that life has offered me, to showcase the beauty of food.
And now you’re expanding your operation, with a new full-service restaurant in Baldwin Hills. Arvizu: The baby is growing. It’s starting to walk now.
Martin del Campo: When we first opened [La Casita Mexicana] we had no experience at all in the restaurant business. Now we have a little bit more knowledge. We will have 58 employees at Mexicano now. And a lot of people don’t know, but we will be hiring senior citizens to work there. People who have lost their jobs, people who cannot otherwise work or cannot find work because they are over 50, 60 years old. I think 40% of our employees will be senior citizens.
We had no experience at all in the restaurant business
Arvizu: We taped a Christmas special for Telemundo yesterday, and hired three people on the show. That was one of the highlights, to give them their job.
It sounds like you’re still really in tune with the community here. Arvizu: The community plays a very big part, because they made us. They’re the ones that have supported us all the way. That’s why we have picked Baldwin Hills, because that community has done so much to support us, and it’s growing so rapidly. It’s an area that is really coming, and it’s in need of good Mexican food.
Martin del Campo: These people are not our clientele, our customers. They’re our friends. Everything we have, we owe to them. I would say, we’re not in the nicest part of the city, but everyone comes here. La Casita is open for everyone.
Obviously, La Casita Mexicana has been a part of bringing quality, traditional Mexican food to Los Angeles, and now you see those influences everywhere. Have you felt that change? Martin del Campo: I’m so happy. People know have made a great leap forward to actually bring the real flavors from Mexico. There’s a lot of great restaurants now, a lot of great, young chefs, and so there’s so much to discover.
Arvizu: It’s very interesting how it’s changed. Globalization has played an important part, because I came here in the late 1970’s. My father owned a restaurant back then in Culver City, and I remember the Mexican food that they used to cook. They were cooking with whatever ingredients they had. They couldn’t get Mexican cheeses in the market, so back then they used cheddar cheese to make the enchiladas. They had different techniques, and they worked with what they could get in their time. Now it’s our time.
Is that increased access to Mexican ingredients changing the way that you cook? Arvizu: Absolutely. Our trips to Mexico play an important role in what we do, because every time we go and visit different parts of Mexico, we learn something new, something that amazes us completely. We marvel ourselves with the foods that we encounter, so it’s really nice to explore Mexico in that way, and be able to bring ingredients back with us.
Our trips to Mexico play an important role in what we do
Someone once said that you can spend 60 years of your life, eating three different meals every day, and you would still die without really knowing Mexican food. You cannot think you know everything.
Martin del Campo: We really want to open a school, where we can bring in like 20 or 30 people at a time, and teach them to cook the food of their culture, using those ingredients. Let’s see: 10% of the restaurants in the United States are Mexican, 10% of the population is Mexican — 90% of the people who work in the restaurant kitchens, are Mexican. We want to encourage those people to cook what they eat at home, so we can have those real flavors. We want to give them the proper training, to watch them go from the back of the kitchen to the front of the house. It’s a great dream, but I believe we can do it.