Photo by Renee McMahon
It's been a while since she's been on the line, but Cameo McRoberts finds herself--and her soul--back at home making authentic


Cameo McRoberts: Bringing 'Big Ups' to Little Water Cantina

Photo by Renee McMahon
It's been a while since she's been on the line, but Cameo McRoberts finds herself--and her soul--back at home making authentic Mexican food at Seattle's newest food mecca: Little Water Cantina (2865 Eastlake Ave. E., 397-4940). After working for Rick Bayless at Frontera Grill and Topolobampo in Chicago for five years, followed by a year-and-a-half stint as Kathy Casey's executive chef, McRoberts has partnered with chef/owner Shannon Wilkinson to turn their passion for Mexican food into something tangible for Seattle diners.

Coming back on the line as a sous chef after a nearly two-year hiatus (during the launch of a new restaurant, no less) is no small feat, but McRoberts found some time to take a load off and sit down with us to chat.

SW: How did you find this job?

McRoberts: It was a Craigslist posting, and it was really out of the blue because I had been on the prowl for Mexican restaurants that were opening in the city; I really wanted to get back into that. I just came across this one and it was the perfect timing. I had a very informal interview and then [Shannon and I] went out and got drunk together. Half-way through my interview I said, "How am I doing on my interview?" and he said, "Well, you're doing fine. You have the job. We can get drunk together now." So basically since then, we've just been kind of hanging out and cooking food.

What is it about Mexican food that speaks to you?

I went to Mexico when I was really young and it was one of my first international traveling experiences, and I just really liked it. I moved to Mexico when I was 19 to go to school and learn Spanish. At one point, the woman I was living with made posole for this big party and she let me help her make it, and it was just the greatest thing I had ever eaten. That kind of spawned my Mexican curiosity.

Have you found really good authentic Mexican food in Seattle?

I normally don't order posole anywhere because I'm kind of a snob about it. I'm a huge fan of Sr. Moose's chilaquiles with carne asada and an egg, which is like a three-person meal, but it's delicious. Other than that, I think everybody has a different take on Mexican food as far as being slightly regional, like Carta de Oaxaca, but I think Seattle has a lot of gaps in their Mexican cuisine and we're just filling one of those gaps.

How are you filling those gaps?

There's a lot of different influences between Shannon and me: I have the Rick Bayless authentic-Mexican-food background and he has a really strong background and strong knowledge of Mexican food as well, so it's kind of a conglomeration of both of our ideas about what we want to make as Mexican food, not necessarily what we think Mexican food is. A lot of the dishes on our menu aren't necessarily authentic dishes, but all of the dishes have an authentic background to them. For instance, we don't have mole poblano, but we're doing a hazelnut mole, which is still very authentic.

When you go out to dinner, what sort of dining experience are you usually looking for?

I'll eat at most places, as long as they're sincere about their food and not trying to be overly, you know, just full of their concept rather than their execution. I would say in this city, I love Cafe Presse because you go there, you get the chicken for two, you wait an hour, you drink a glass of wine, and it's solid--it is what it is. And places like La Isla and their late-night happy hour. You get two-dollar empanadas and you drink Cuba Libres and people are nice to you and the food is consistent.

Where else do you like to eat?

Staple & Fancy, Veraci, Delancey, Uneeda Burger. I would also like to say for the record that the banh mi at HT Market on Aurora is one of my favorite things in all of Seattle. I guess there's some little lady that comes at like 10 in the morning and delivers like 15 of them, and they sit on this table at the front door and they're $2.99. They're awesome!

Check back for part two of this week's Grillaxin for more with chef Cameo McRoberts.

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