Chef Ray Garcia has been hinting for years that he's capable of greatness. At Fig, in the Fairmont Miramar Hotel in Santa Monica, he spent the last half-decade turning out the kind of astute, farm-to-table stuff you'd expect from a decent hotel restaurant. There might have been no indication that the chef had more to offer than beet salads and creative panna cottas — if it weren't for his special talent for cooking pig.
Two years running, Garcia beat out every other Los Angeles chef competing in Cochon 555, a traveling competition that pits chefs against one another in their aptitude for making use of a heritage breed hog.
Cochon 555 holds regional rounds throughout the country and then a grand finale at the Aspen Food & Wine Festival, where the regional winners face off. Garcia came in first place in L.A. in 2013 and 2014, conquering chefs including Jet Tila and the Bazaar's Joshua Wingham. Last year Garcia won the national round in Aspen, beating eight star chefs from around the country.
It appeared likely, given these victories, that Garcia was destined for more than casual, upscale hotel cooking. And who better to notice and recruit such a talent than Bill Chait, the restaurateur who seems to own about three-fourths of L.A.'s hottest restaurants? My guess is that Chait met with Garcia and asked him what he really wanted to be cooking. And Garcia said: "modern Mexican food."
Earlier this year, Chait tasked Garcia with filling two spaces that had recently been vacated by chefs who had aims not unsimilar to Garcia's. Mo-Chica, Ricardo Zarate's colorful Peruvian restaurant downtown, would become B.S. Taqueria, serving anomalies such as beet tortas, and tacos with fillings such as lardo and razor clams. And the space near Staples Center that had been Rivera would become Broken Spanish, an ambitious, upscale restaurant where Garcia would take the food he grew up eating and make it more creative, using better ingredients.
It's nice to see Broken Spanish go into the Rivera space, given that chef John Sedlar had spent years trying to further the glory of modern Latin cuisine at that restaurant. While the closing of Rivera was a loss for Los Angeles, Broken Spanish is an indication that we can move forward with our appreciation of sophisticated cooking that hinges on the flavors of Mexico and Latin America. Garcia's take is very different from Sedlar's, but it feels just as vital.
The space is quite similar: The dining room, bar and open kitchen lie long rather than deep against the windowed front of the Flower Street building. But the feel has been brightened considerably — gone is the brooding, sleek decor of the Rivera days. Light wood, hanging plants and geometric tiles give the room a sunny aspect. Tables are set with colorful crocheted doilies and candles in painted pottery. It feels homey but not hokey.
I have to admit that my one visit to B.S. Taqueria, which opened a few weeks ahead of Broken Spanish, left me feeling a little skeptical of Garcia's brand of elevated Mexican cooking. I'm not opposed to a $40 taco lunch if that lunch is considerably more rewarding than the $8 taco lunch I can get anywhere else, but I can't say that was the case. Those clam and lardo tacos that everyone raves about were slightly discordant and also insanely salty, and nothing else really made much of an impression. But I'm glad to say that I had no such issue with Broken Spanish, which revealed its best attributes immediately.
It was a whole fish that won me over completely on an early visit: a red snapper served over "green clamato" (a jaunty green sauce with citrus tang and a whisper of the ocean) and accompanied by clams, avocado and soft leeks left in chunks large enough to showcase their sweet, vegetal flavor. Garcia is playing with the kind of inventiveness that feels natural, and he puts deliciousness first.
There are thick black tortillas made from heirloom corn, which you can get with refried lentils (a cooler idea in theory than in practice) or whipped carnitas fat.
But the tortillas themselves are the real treat. You should order them with just about anything you're eating here; they're particularly handy when tackling the rabbit mixiote, a chile-drenched stew of rabbit meat and liver served in a cellophane bag with nopales, bacon and cherry tomatoes. Deep, spicy and warming, this dish will be even more vital when the weather gets cooler.
This menu has a lot of comfort food that's exciting as well as soothing. You can have tamales stuffed with lamb neck or with a delightful mix of favas, peas and Swiss chard. There are touches of true modernism, too, such as a beautiful jumble of snap peas, sea beans, black sesame and creamy requesón cheese.
Lots of Garcia's cooking is so well suited to drinking that, in a different setting, it could almost be Mexican gastropub fare. Huge grilled shrimp with pineapple and oxtail quesadillas make for very good drinking snacks, and the cocktail menu offers plenty to pair with food like this. The drinks range from light and fruity to strong and serious. And the bar staff is engaged and charming. The wine list, too, is pretty great, with lots of whites, in particular, that stand up to the spice and intensity of the food.
Given pork's role in Garcia's rise to prominence, you'd think this would be a piggy menu, but there's not a whole lot of pork to speak of, save a giant chicharron topped with elephant garlic mojo, radish sprouts and pickled herbs. But I get the feeling that with Broken Spanish, Garcia is looking to move away from the things he's been known for in the past, to follow his heart and not much else.
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We should be glad he's been given the chance to do so. Broken Spanish is a heartening step forward for a chef who was obviously meant to be at the forefront of the modern Mexican-food revolution.
BROKEN SPANISH | Three stars | 1050 S. Flower St., downtown | (213) 749-1460 | brokenspanish.com | Daily, 5:30-11 p.m. | Entrees, $15-$35 | Full bar | Valet parking