Contemporary chefs often stake their reputations on mastering regional cuisines of far-off locales from around the world. But for chef Ray Garcia, his culinary terrain is much closer to home. He aims to showcase L.A.'s modern Mexican food as its own regionally focused style, just like the fare coming from Mexico City, Baja or the Yucatán.
"I knew it wasn't going to be a region-specific study on Central Mexican food," he says. "It's more about feeding my curiosity as a chef."
He's referring to the food at his two restaurants, B.S. Taqueria and Broken Spanish, which he opened in 2015, less than 90 days apart. At B.S. Taqueria, in the center of downtown, tacos are works of art. Behold Manila clams, diced Creminelli lardo, serrano chilies and crisp garlic chips on an heirloom masa tortilla dabbed with puffs of whipped lardo.
A few blocks south, Broken Spanish is an upscale joint where the masa on the lamb neck tamale is soft enough to cradle a precious emerald. The poached Okinawan sweet potato is heaped with pig snout, ear and tail (the better to showcase their varied textures), and the chicharrón is cooked for 36 hours before being deep-fried and served in a round slab that'd shame most steakhouses.
At both, Garcia fuses the badassery of a five-star chef with a love for what L.A. has taught him.
A Los Angeles native, Garcia, 40, grew up splitting his time between Cypress Park and the east San Fernando Valley, where his grandmother watched him on weekdays while his parents worked. The UCLA grad deferred law school and ended up in the food world. He spent six years at the Belvedere, in the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills, where he started at the bottom and worked his way up to executive sous chef. He jumped to Fig at Santa Monica's Fairmont Miramar Hotel, transforming it from a forgettable hotel restaurant into a farm-to-table powerhouse that drew on ingredients from the nearby Santa Monica Farmers Market. Angelenos took notice.
Broken Spanish and B.S. Taqueria have given Garcia free reign to explore his palate — while winning critical raves and hungry eaters. He mashes up styles in a hybrid that has become his signature.
And if he helps redefine Mexican food along the way, so be it. "Sometimes, there's a pressure for forced authenticity," Garcia says. "This adaptation, this modification — that's the new thing. That's what's genuine."
L.A. WEEKLY: I keep reading about how you're "elevating" Mexican food. Do you think that's a fair description?
RAY GARCIA: I guess it's fair. "Elevating" makes something sound like it's very low or that it needs help. I never say I'm cooking elevated Mexican cuisine. We're showcasing Mexican cuisine. We do it out of an appreciation for the food as opposed to "Let me see how I can chef it up." I say no. Let me understand the dish. Let me fall in love with it. Let me share that with you. It's not "Let me fix your broken plate of food."
That's why I asked. I feel like people intend that phrase as a compliment. The notion of "elevating" food has a fraught history. It's rooted in these culturally biased notions — haute cuisine, basically European food, versus "ethnic" cuisine.
I think if I look at my recipes versus my grandmother's, there is a consistency. I'm working within my means and I'm putting all of the resources I have onto a plate. If somebody makes you a great grilled cheese sandwich with artisan cheese or bread, it's not to pooh-pooh what your mom made you with tomato soup on a rainy day.
How important are precolonial, Mesoamerican cuisines to your cooking?
I won't remove the Spanish contribution to my food — cheese, pork, chicken, animals — but we also have an heirloom variety of ayocote beans on the menu. We use pre-Columbian herbs like epazote and papalo. I try to use them instead of coriander, cinnamon or other flavors that were not native to Mexico. You put a little epazote in a pot of beans and it's completely different.
Did you grow up eating these ingredients, or did you discover them later?
After tasting them, I'd go, "Oh, that's that flavor." But it was not something I originally put on my grocery list. My understanding and comfort with it have increased. We have some epazote on our counter in little pods that we can pick fresh. The primary use is refried lentils. It's my take on refried beans. It's very, very California.
How does the kind of food you ate growing up influence what you're cooking now?
Some dishes are almost a direct replica of what I grew up eating. When we opened B.S. Taqueria, I had a bologna taco on the menu. We made our own homemade bologna and mayonnaise. That was my after-school snack. Tamales are one of the staples at Broken Spanish. I want to show the versatility of that dish. There are some direct tie-ins to the food I ate, but it's more the taste and the kind of soul that goes into what I cook. I am a third-generation Mexican-American. There's definitely been Mexican culture in the kitchen, but it was usually in the back of the house. It wasn't the culture or voice of the person who was driving the menu.
How do you feel about being grouped with other "pocho chefs" — Eddie Ruiz of Corazon y Miel, Carlos Salgado of Taco María, Wes Avila of Guerrilla Tacos and a few others — as a new wave of Mexican cuisine?
I don't know how it started. They started to bring our names up in this group and we started to form relationships. I wish the list was longer than five to 10 people. It's great that we're being seen as this new group, but each one of us has our own identity, our own style, our own purpose in food.
It definitely seems like a "high tide lifts all boats" sort of thing. It is not a sea without choppy waves. I think there is still a lot to overcome.
Does it bug you when people say, "Why should I go to a fancier Mexican restaurant when I could go to any truck and get a taco for two bucks?"
It's incredibly frustrating. I get that everyone is operating within their means, but if you're on the consumer end, you can't be an idiot. To say that anything with a tortilla and some sort of topping is a taco so you should only pay a dollar is close-minded. People say, "I can't pay $15 for a tamale. It's just a tamale." No, it's not. It's this heirloom corn, this lamb, this sauce. It's this amount of time, this technique, this cook.
What's the question you never get asked that you want people to know?
I get asked all the time: "What part of Mexico is your family from?" I can generate some sort of response that will get you off my back, but I'm from Los Angeles. My experience is uniquely Angeleno. Sometimes your culinary roots, where you draw from, is your current address and not 3,000 miles away, 150 years ago.
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BROKEN SPANISH | 1050 S. Flower St., downtown | (213) 749-1460 | brokenspanish.com
B.S. TAQUERIA | 514 W. Seventh St., downtown | (213) 622-3744 | bstaqueria.com