After getting his degree in Mathematics at University of Wisconsin, USA—Maths! how sexy!–the dashing chef-owner Marcus Loh wanted to enroll in a culinary school but his friends advised him that kitchen life was cruel and asked him to work for a year at a restaurant first.
He found a job at a family-run Vietnamese restaurant in Wisconsin—and he loved it right from the start. When I asked him why he chose such a career, long hours, hard work, few holidays, he replied with much conviction, “Because cooking is the only thing I want to do. I know I must do it.” RESPECT.
After a year at the Vietnamese restaurant, he traveled to New York to study two years at The Culinary Institute of America where many of his classmates were Hispanics. They cooked for him and brought him around the streets of New York, eating cheap Mexican roadside food. His classmates and food trucks were his influences of Mexican food. To Chef Loh, Mexican food is something simple, humble and homely and this is the essence he wishes to capture in his restaurant—like we are friends going to his home for a meal.
He returned to Singapore to work for the Les Amis Group (at Au Jardin and Annam Vietnamese) and eventually opened El Rocho’s. There are only 15 food items on El Rocho’s menu, but they are well thought out and provide a variety.
For entrees, although there is no such thing as a bad guacamole, the guacamole ($9) was something different. Chunks of avocado and tomato–providing much texture–were mixed into the smooth dip, finished with sour cream. The fish ceviche ($17, left) was the highlight. It was a mixture of avocado, onion, tomato, cilantro and a generous serving of citrus-marinated Spanish mackerel, which might be just a tad fishy. The secret ingredients came from the crispy corn and jicama (Mexican yam but is known as bengkoang to us, the sweet crunchy fruit-like stuff in rojak). The corn and jicama livened up the dish by adding texture. As a whole, the dish tasted quite Thai, tangy, sweet and slightly spicy. Chiobu said it tasted like cincalok too, very refreshing.
The mains, starting from $13, are separated into meat dishes (chicken, pork, beef, lamb, shrimp) and the classic Mexican fare, taco, burrito and quesadilla. Most parts of the Yucatan Pork ($21, pictured below), braised in achiote, habanero pepper, honey, and orange juice, was succulent and tender. If you opt for the taco, you should order at least 3 pieces. The ox tongue taco ($9, pictured above) was a tad bland to me but Chiobu liked its strong beefy taste. However, we agreed the beef burrito ($15), or gigantic Mexican popiah, was excellent: the generous serving of beef was tender and had a nice balance of meat and cartilage.
But if we could make a suggestion to the mains, it was that the corn tortilla that accompanied most dishes were a bit dry.
There is only one dessert on the menu but what a fantastic dessert it was. The MUST ORDER Tres Leches Cake ($9, or three milk cake) is a simple vanilla sponge cake, soaked in three kinds of milk, evaporated milk, condensed milk and whole milk. It sounded terribly heavy but in reality, it was very light, a perfect way to end a meal. The cake itself had an airy texture, so even when it was soaked in the mildly-sweet milk, it didn’t come across as soggy or cloying. Even milk-hater Chiobu thought the dessert was excellent.
Verdict: The restaurant decor was both colorful and classy; the service was intimate; the food was elegant; and the chef is cute. Worth a visit.
36 Circular Rd Singapore 049392
T: 6438 7879
11.30am-2.30pm, 6.30-10pm (closed on Sunday)
Rating: 3.258/5 stars
PS: Thanks, Marcus and Ivan, for the invite.
Written by A. Nathanael Ho.