“My mom would bring the ingredients home and I’d get super excited because I knew what was coming,” Julian Ocampo recalls of growing up in Cuernavaca, in the Morelos state in Mexico, with his parents Armando Ocampo and Lilia Zagal.
Lilia’s simple but delicious home cooking was a constant that stuck with the family after they moved to the United States, and it’s now the basis of a popular chain of Mexican restaurants owned by the Ocampo family across the Twin Cities. With a master’s degree and an eye on modern dining trends, Julian runs the newest, Machete Cocina Mexicana, which opened in Woodbury this spring in the old Cien Tacos space.
From its inception, he wanted Machete to strike a balance between his family’s traditional brand and the modern, fresh, upscale Mexican restaurants he’d seen springing up coast to coast. He brought in designer Kwadwo Boadi-Aboagye from Infinite Group—who provided 3D renderings with each tweak—as they built out a new beer cooler, created a bar from the previously open kitchen, and eked out as much dining space as possible.
They brought in funky, modern touches—like spherical hanging lights over the tables—and touches of Mexican-inspired whimsy. A massive skull painting greets visitors when they walk into the front vestibule, and dark wallpaper echoes with subtle skull shapes, a nod to Dia de Los Muertos. Local artist Jules Bowman painted colorful murals of Mexican cultural icons on the previously drab brick behind the bar. In the back of the restaurant, she hand-painted a huge set of wings, intentionally perfect for photo ops.
The space is fresh and modern, but still incorporates elements of what’s made the Los Ocampo restaurants so popular. Old-world flavors are centered strongly on the hand-formed masa that’s core to Mexican cooking.
“The big thing that ties everything together is the authentic recipes,” agrees executive assistant Emma Ocampo. Her first date with Julian took place at one of the family’s restaurants, and she officially married into the family in 2017. “The way we make the meat here, the flavor profile? It’s unique to Los Ocampo.”
Julian is visibly excited about the top-quality cocktails on the menu. They let fresh ingredients shine, with high-quality alcohol and no preservatives or pre-made mixes. Many feature local spirits, including Vikre spruce gin, Tattersall blueberry and orange, and Panther bourbon alongside house-made syrups and quality tequilas and garnishes. With the exception of the Hola Bola—a laughable, 56-ounce margarita—the cocktails are smaller, made for sipping over a delicious meal.
Though the drink line-up was intentionally focused on quality over quantity, some guests sought out the bigger, cheaper, Americanized margaritas they’d become accustomed to at other establishments. So the team compromised, adding a version with a lower price tag shortly after opening.
The drink menu also includes a few drinks made from mezcal, which is like tequila but stronger, Julian explains. “It’s the same plant, but not the same strength. And it’s made in different parts of Mexico, so can’t legally be called tequila,” he says. Because it’s aged in barrels, it has a slightly smokier flavor than tequila, like bourbon is to whiskey.
A favorite cocktail is the Prohibition en Tijuana, Machete’s take on the traditional Old Fashioned. It’s 96-proof Coyote Sotol Chihuahua mezcal with Pinhook Rye, Atholl Brose, and Peychaud’s Bitters, garnished with house-made orange cinnamon syrup, fresh orange peel and a Filthy Cherry. “It looks very, very nice—and it’s super flavorful,” says Julian. “Our cocktails are all presented right.”
He adds that for the food side of the menu, finding authentic ingredients has gotten easier since the family launched their first restaurant. Whereas Lilia Ocampo used to go grocery shopping for the first storefront at the Latin market, buying a pound or two of meat at a time, the restaurant now utilizes the best wholesalers, constantly infusing new seasonal flavors into the mix. One place that’s evident is in the salads.
“We put work into those—we didn’t want to throw a house salad on a nice menu. Even our Caesar has fresh roasted poblano dressing,” says Emma, who adds that technically, Caesar salad is a Mexican creation. “It was created in Tijuana in the 1920s during Prohibition, when the Americans would go down to drink and party. One of the chefs created it; it caught on because it’s good!”
The plantain salad is served up with garlic mojo wild red shrimp, mango, pineapple, fried plantain, avocado, black beans, grilled corn and a fresh coconut-lime vinaigrette. The pork belly is served on a zippy bed of hominy, green chiles, radishes, jalapenos, tossed in an organic mix of harvest blend greens.
Generously sized ceviches and a parade of street-style, mix-and-match taco options round out the menu. There’s been an Americanized version added there, too, with cheese and sour cream. But while there are some concessions made to the suburban palate, the move to Woodbury was intentional for the family—and they hope that traditional flavors will win over the neighborhood.
“We really wanted to start a restaurant like this because we’ve seen so many versions of atmospheres like this across the country—where is ours?” asks Emma. “There’s Tex-Mex in the Cities, but nothing like this. We wanted to make something very authentic, but with a modern vibe.”
So far it’s working.
“People come in, they dine, they chat—that’s exactly what we had in mind,” says Julian. “People feel comfortable here. They enjoy the food and drink in front of them. People leave fully satisfied, totally content with the food, the drink, the people they’re with.”
Los Restaurantes Ocampo
Machete is one of seven Twin Cities-area restaurants owned and operated by the Ocampo family. The business started in 2003 on Lake and Fifth in Minneapolis. Word of mouth spread and business boomed at the tiny storefront, mostly among immigrants. They expanded on St. Paul’s Seeger Square, and then opened another location at Midtown Global Market. Then came three late-night Taquerías Los Ocampo: Lake and Chicago in Minneapolis, University and Dale in St. Paul, and Arcade in St. Paul. The larger, full-service Los Ocampo Mexican Restaurant and Bar opened in 2011 off I-94 and White Bear Avenue in St. Paul. Machete is an intentional move to the suburbs, with a more upscale, modern feel and menu—and an enduring commitment to traditional Mexican flavors. Los Ocampo Express—akin to Chipotle in format—is opening soon on the skyway level on Seventh Street in Minneapolis.
Master the Masa
Masa—short for masa harina, “dough flour”—is corn flour that’s been soaked and cooked in an alkaline solution. The simple ingredient becomes the foundation of many traditional Latin American dishes. You’ll find many of them on the menu at Machete and the other Los Ocampo restaurants, so study up on their differences:
An oval-shaped, fried masa cake is topped with a generous pile of refried beans and meat. Topped with lettuce, sour cream, cheese, onions, and radish for a little zing.
It’s a huarache, but stuffed with spicy beans—and with avocado on top.
Quesadilla a Mano
Like a quesadilla—which is usually a folded flour tortilla, stuffed, and grilled or fried—this is corn masa filled with chipotle chicken, steak or marinated pork and topped with fresh veggies, cheese, and avocado.
It’s a savory fried cake stuffed with meat and topped with lettuce, sour cream, cotija cheese and radish. Yes, Taco Bell has a version—and no, it doesn’t compare.
Pro tip: this has two syllables and sounds like so-pay. It’s a fluffy, circular, handmade masa cake topped with meat and garnishes.
Amparo Montoya first developed the “machete” dish for Los Machetes Amparito in the Gerrero neighborhood of Mexico City, and it quickly became a favorite. Woodbury’s version is a 21-inch oval corn masa tortilla stuffed with up to five meats, pumpkin flower, or sautéed poblano peppers; folded; and grilled. Julian and Emma have witnessed a single person devour an entire machete, but they’re huge, so most share with a friend or take half home.