Ray Garcia is part of a new generation of chefs who are changing the way Mexican food is cooked and consumed in Los Angeles. But even within this trend — embodied by everything from Wes Avila's Guerrilla Tacos to Ricardo Diaz's Bizarra Capital to Eduardo Ruiz's Corazon y Miel — Garcia's latest restaurant, Broken Spanish, opening tonight in the former Rivera space downtown, is an undeniable game-changer.
Like other classically trained L.A. chefs who are striking out with their own nuevo Mexican-American restaurant concepts, Garcia was born in L.A., raised on abuelitas cooking, studied in European-style kitchens, made a name working in L.A.'s top restaurants and is now pitting nostalgic recipes against Southern California ingredients to create a new take on Latin food.
Unlike the other restaurants that are the product of these experiences, however, Broken Spanish is not a place to get imaginative tacos filled with familiar meats or obvious fusions of European and Mexican favorites. (For some of that, you can go to B.S. Taqueria, his more casual taco concept in the old Mo-Chica space nearby.) Broken Spanish has all the elements of a contemporary California fine-dining establishment — a wine list, cocktail program, love of seasonal farmers market veggies — with a menu of dishes that just happen to be inspired by the foods Garcia grew up eating.
"There's a lot of Mexican food and a lot of new-Mexican food experiences in L.A.," says Garcia. "Most of them are catering toward street food, like tacos and tortas, so with Broken Spanish, we wanted to peel it back even further."
Expect familiar Mexican dishes to get a punch of California's natural bounty, plus a heavy dose of the nose-to-tail philosophy (which Garcia says is at the core of Mexican cooking). His appetizer of pan dulce is made with fois gras. A small plate of duck hearts comes drenched in the juice of fresh oranges. A side of green beans is topped with a salsa made with chapulines, or crickets. And the list of entrees built for sharing includes half a roasted lamb's head, served with handmade tortillas and refried lentils.
Some of Mexico's heaviest dishes, such as tamales and chile rellenos, will be made lighter at Broken Spanish, with less cheese and more emphasis on fillings such as English peas, fava beans and Swiss chard (for the vegetarian tamal) and potato, kale, lemon and sauerkraut (for the chile relleno). The quesadilla is mostly a mixture of oxtail, plantains and habanero. Most dishes are under $20, too.
"There's a negative stigma of Mexican food that it's going to be heavy and greasy and spicy and I'll get my platter No. 3 and that's it," says Garcia. "But there's so much more that can go into developing layers of flavor and technique and precision that for most people isn't associated with Mexican food yet."
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Broken Spanish is the latest incarnation of what food writer Bill Esparza has been calling "Alta California cuisine," a take on modern Mexican food that is distinctly Southern Californian. Garcia's two restaurants are also the most centrally located of the Alta contingent, moving the cuisine from fringe cities like Whittier and Bell into the heart of downtown.
By elevating dishes commonly found in the homes of Latinos across Los Angeles, chefs like Garcia are becoming spokespeople for this cuisine, bringing disenchanted audiences back to Mexican food and opening kitchens that will train future chefs.
"I see Broken Spanish as part of this next generation of Spagos and Patinas: restaurants from 20 years ago that were the breeding grounds for great chefs and new culinary thought that turned 'California cuisine' into something that's nationally recognized," Garcia says. "A place where a new type of chef is developed, a new lexicon of ingredients is used and an entirely new cuisine is exposed and proudly highlighted."
Broken Spanish, 1050 S. Flower St. #102, downtown; (213) 749-1460; brokenspanish.com