Chef-owner Mikey Ochoa of Oculto de Castro Valley, the fine-dining restaurant in the Castro Valley Marketplace, vividly remembers the first time he tasted chili verde.
He was 10 years old and his family had recently moved from San Leandro to Castro Valley. Despite being half-Mexican, Ochoa didn’t grow up on a lot of Mexican food. But from her first bite of this tender pork with its cilantro-jalapeño punch, a connection was established.
Twenty years later, Ochoa’s journey to explore her Mexican side through food inspired Hermanos Verdes, a pop-up that rose to fame during the pandemic for — you guessed it — chili verde. Suddenly, foodies were flocking to Castro Valley to sample its cuisine (and discover other gems, like Pampas Empanada and Coffee Co and the newer Pho aunty 7specializing in Vietnamese regional street food).
Last December, along with executive chef and high school friend Gus Villarroel, Ochoa brought Hermanos into his permanent home on the market mezzanine.
Now called Oculo, the industrial-chic restaurant celebrates Latin American cuisine with Californian accents and cocktails from the Night Owl market. The two chefs bring years of dining experience at San Francisco restaurants such as Rich Table and SPQR to the menu, which depending on the day can include chicken al carbon with chili butter and matcha salsa or ribs. back lifts covered in that famous chile verde sauce. Look for a new cocktail program launching soon.
In a city with few gourmet chefs, Ochoa is a rising star and one to watch. Although he is the owner of Oculto and the father of two young children, he still manages 12 hours a day, working on the assembly line every night with his small team, making everything from scratch, except the bread. They source their supplies from Seven Hills Baking Co., which is downstairs next to their meat supplier, Baron’s Quality Meats, olive oil source, Amphora Nuevo, and spice company, Oaktown. Spice Shop.
We recently sat down with Ochoa to learn more about her early years, her future hopes, and the secret to that sauce.
Q: Besides chili verde, do you have any special food memories? When did you know you wanted to be a chef?
A: I have always been in love with food. My mom’s family is Hawaiian, and we used to have these big family gatherings where my aunt made hot dogs cooked in barbecue sauce. For some reason I thought it was the best thing that ever happened on the planet.
Growing up, I was often alone, as my mother was a single mother. I learned how to make ramen, eggs and other stuff for myself. We had this big swivel TV from Rent-A-Center and I remember watching adverts for Le Cordon Bleu and being mesmerized by the chef’s hats. It was always something I dreamed of. I was 9 or 10 years old.
Q: What’s the secret to your chili verde?
A: There are only seven ingredients: tomatillos, onions, cilantro, jalapeños, salt, lime juice and fish sauce. Traditionally, you boil the pork and strain it, reserve some liquid, pour it into your sauce and boil it again until nicely tender. But I do it in a different way. My technique comes from French cuisine. Like an ember, we char and blister all the salsa ingredients in the oven for 45 minutes until super gnarly. Then we add cilantro and lime juice and mix together. To give it the umami and bring out the nuanced char and other flavors, fish sauce is added. I like the three crabs.
Q: What was it like to be chef de partie at Lazy Bear in San Francisco?
A: I thought I knew how to cook when I arrived at Lazy Bear, but realized I didn’t. At this level, it becomes much more intellectual. (I learned to ask), what is the identity of the dish? Where does the idea come from? How is it eaten? We have a mole dish on the menu now that I’m really proud of. It’s carrot based. The identity of this dish was that I was trying to approach my culture in a way that suited me.
Q: What did you learn from launching Hermanos Verdes during the pandemic?
A: I had just lost my job as a chef at Linked In. In the culinary world, you don’t really learn business, so that was most important to me. I also realized that I valued hospitality very much. The experience of my guests is what matters most to me. Is the music on? Should we turn off the lights? Does everyone have water? Food sells. This is to make sure the cocktail program is good and everything runs the same on all cylinders.
Q: What is your long term plan?
A: I hope I’m here (in the market) for two years. Perhaps less. I want my own space so badly. This space does not necessarily correspond to who we are. If I could do it in Castro Valley that would be really nice, but I don’t know if it’s possible. Hopefully in Hayward, San Leandro or San Lorenzo.