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Remembering L.A.'s nachos queen

October 17, 2008 |  9:33 am

La_reina_2 In L.A., sometimes the celebrity chefs get all the attention. But, of course, we spend a lot more time with our waiter or waitress. And at the famed El Cholo on Western Avenue, you could not help but meet Carmen Rocha, who served up the margaritas and reportedly introduced L.A. to nachos (seriously!). Rocha, 77, died this month, and our own Mary Rourke pays tribute: 

She started working at the restaurant in 1959 and won a following with her warm, outgoing personality. "Carmen was wonderful, to me and to everybody," actor Jack Nicholson, a longtime regular at El Cholo, said this week. "It's a community loss," he said of her death.

For a special treat Rocha sometimes went into the kitchen and made her customers an order of nachos, an item not included on the menu. She followed a recipe she learned in San Antonio, where she grew up, layering tortilla wedges, shredded cheddar cheese and slices of jalapeño pepper, warming the dish in the oven. Before long she had requests from all over the dining room and her nachos were added to the menu.

"Carmen Rocha introduced an iconic dish and helped popularize it," said Merrill Shindler, who wrote "El Cholo Cookbook: Recipes and Lore from California's Best Loved Mexican Kitchen" in 1998. "Now, everybody eats nachos. If they were called 'Carmens,' not nachos, her name would be remembered forever."

El Cholo also claims the restaurant played a big role in popularizing not just nachos but the margarita.

Chowhound asked readers what they thought were L.A.-invented foods and drinks. Here are a few replies: the California roll, Cobb salad, the apple martini and the Shirley Temple.

-- Shelby Grad

Photo: From a souvenir postcard sold at El Cholo