The cracked pavement is illuminated by passing headlights on Sahara Avenue. The breeze carries the faint smell of gasoline across the parking lot. The busy intersection hardly seems like the kind of place where one might stop to enjoy a meal, and yet a diverse array of Mexican, white, and Latinx customers gather around a wooden bar, eating chicken tinga tacos, Caesar salads, chicken Milanesa tortas, and fettuccine Alfredo in the glow from the nearby gas station.
Camaradas, a food truck that opened in January 2019 and serves both Mexican and Italian fare, doesn’t quite make sense — until it does. To its owners, German Castellanos and Juventino Angeles, cooking and serving Mexican and Italian food in the same place comes naturally.
Originally from San Jerónimo Tlacochahuaya in Mexico’s state of Oaxaca, Angeles left Mexico at age 15 and moved to Los Angeles. He later relocated to Las Vegas, where he worked front-of-house at Valentino at the Venetian. Castellanos’s father, who is also named German, was working in the kitchen at Valentino at the time. The two formed a bond over a mutual love of cooking.
“My dad was trained under Luciano Pellegrini and would travel abroad to get those real recipes, so he was inspired by that,” says the younger Castellanos. As such, he grew up eating Italian food along with traditional Mexican recipes prepared by Angeles, who he met through his father as a child in Las Vegas, his father, and his mother, who is from Oaxaca.
“One of my favorite memories was take-your-kid-to-work day at Valentino,” Castellanos says. “I remember they had a grill on the outside and they showed me how to make pizza. Food was always super important in our household.”
After over a decade at Valentino, Angeles and the younger Castellanos decided to start their own venture, with the elder Castellanos serving as consulting chef.
“Oh boy, how many bottles of wine we shared building our dream,” says Angeles. “We decided to take all of our passion and the flavors of our private cooking to our community.”
“My dad and Juventino have always been close friends,” says Castellanos, who previously helped manage labor for Bacchanal Buffet at Caesars Palace and also ran for Nevada State Assembly in 2016. “We’re Latino, and we were always cooking Mexican and Italian. That’s the most natural thing to us. We have this expertise and this background and these family recipes too. We wanted to bring that together. ”
The small team chose the name Camaradas Mexican-Italian Kitchen, which translates to comrade, ally, or friend. They purchased a former taco truck in July of 2018 and quickly found their location through a family friend who owns a nearby car wash and window-tinting business. They spent the next six months securing permits and designing the menu, which is split into Italian dishes and Mexican dishes.
On the Italian side, there’s rigatoni Bolognese, cheese ravioli, and spaghetti with meatballs. The star of the Mexican side of the menu is the huarache (which translates to sandal, due to its oblong shape, like the sole of a shoe), a base of crispy masa topped with beans, cheese, and meat. Other highlights include the chicken tinga taco, wet burrito with carne asada, and the chicken Milanesa torta, which is made with quesillo directly imported from Oaxaca.
“Oaxaca is one of the few places left that’s still very indigenous, so you have a lot of those customs, a lot of things made by hand,” says Castellanos. “We actually went to Oaxaca and tried out all the cheese. We tried five or six distributors and ran tests until we found our ideal distributor.”
“We put ingredients in our food that we grew up with, that remind us of our childhood,” says Angeles, “like the fresh cheese, the black beans cooked the way mom used to cook.”
To prepare the black beans, they puree them with dry chile, epazote, and marinated onions and then cook the mixture until it forms a paste. Angeles grows herbs for these items in his own garden, including hoja santa, basil, and rosemary. The restaurant recently offered mole negro, slowly cooked with chile haujilo, chile ancho, tomatillos, Oaxacan chocolate, and lard, served with chicken marinated in hoja santa broth.
The menu at Camaradas is designed to allow fans of Mexican food to enjoy tacos, burritos, tortas, quesadillas, and huaraches while allowing those who prefer Italian food to order salads and pasta dishes.
“People who eat with us are either Latinos who want homemade flavors and taste and want to eat what would remind them of eating at at home,” says Castellanos, “or they are people who are not Latinos, but who have an open mind, an eagerness for exploration.”
In addition to offering a Oaxacan-inspired mole negro as a special, Castellanos and Angeles have also experimented with limited runs on fusion items. Angeles recently created a variation of penne alla vodka that trades vodka for mezcal, resulting in a smokier flavor. This special was so successful it was added to the permanent menu.
His hope is that diners who are comfortable with one side of the menu will branch out and order from the other side, and then will eventually be open to creative dishes that marry the two cuisines.
“At first, [people] are kind of shocked by seeing Mexican and Italian food on one menu,” says Castellanos. “They see us as a taco truck. We win them over and then they start trying everything else.”
Since opening, Camaradas has served as a meeting place for students at the nearby College of Southern Nevada campus and employees from neighboring office parks. The wooden bar in front of the food truck offers an unlikely community space that inspires diners to mingle in the parking lot, rather than taking their meals to go. To Castellanos, who attended elementary and high school right around the block, the location is meaningful.
“We’re super grateful for everyone around, all the offices around,” he says. “Food is a vehicle for bringing people together and sharing a moment with the people you care about. Whether it’s your coworker, your partner, your friends.”
Angeles and Castellanos would like to eventually turn Camaradas into a free-standing restaurant to allow for more inventory that would facilitate the creation of additional recipes combining Mexican and Italian elements. But for now, they’re satisfied with their little food truck and the small menu.
“There’s so much talent here in Las Vegas,” says Castellanos. “I think in the future, you won’t be shocked at all the food trucks that start and then turn into restaurants.”