Chef Ray Garcia: A Modern Mexican Movement

If there’s one thing Angelenos can be ubiquitously proud of, it’s our city’s Mexican food. Whether it’s the juicy ceviche tostadas of places like Mariscos Jalisco or the humble street taco, Mexican food is what we take our out-of-towner friends to eat, perhaps hoping they’ll forget the city’s lack of a proper skyline or the imminent dismay of visiting Hollywood’s walk of fame. Even better, it’s often a meal you can consume while barely putting a dent in your wallet.

So when Ray Garcia introduced his eateries B.S. Taqueria and Broken Spanish, who knew what the reception would be? Priced on the higher end of what Angelenos are used to, Garcia’s combination of classical training and Mexican-American heritage promised a take on Mexican food that combined the soul of his upbringing’s kitchens with produce sourced by a classically trained hand.

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“There’s still a stigma around what Mexican food is,” Garcia says. “What it should be, and how much it should cost. We’re trying to push more creatively what Mexican food is, what the ingredients are.”

Garcia’s menus, for example, include staples but in the form of dishes like their famed lamb neck tamale, made with king oyster mushrooms and Oaxaca cheese, or handmade tortillas served with refried lentils rather than pinto beans. “Once you’ve seen it, tasted it, you can, within reason, understand why food costs a certain amount.”

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Garcia has been working in kitchens for more than 20 years now. He put in six years at FIG at the Fairmont Miramar, earning respect for pushing the confines of “hotel dining” but perhaps gaining more notoriety for his boundary-pushing Mexican food at competitions and, of course, his love of pork— Garcia won LA’s pork-centric Cochon 555 in 2013 and 2014, and was crowned “King of Porc” for Cochon 555’s national competition in 2014. In 2015, he was named Esquire’s Chef of the Year.

Today, Garcia is steadily carving himself a place as a fixture in the LA culinary community, dishing out food that delivers the warmth and sincerity of what he grew up eating as a Mexican-American, while expanding the spectrum of what Angelenos consider to be Mexican food. What does authenticity mean to Garcia anyway? “We’ve always billed ourselves, and my food in particular, as ‘authentically inauthentic.’ Even in the name, the idea, ‘Broken Spanish.’”

Garcia goes on to explain, “It doesn’t need to be the exact way your mother, your father or your grandmother prepared it. But when we do a dish and it really goes over well, it connects them to a time in their life, a happy place. We want to capture that authentic moment, as opposed to having that exact recipe. It’s more about satisfying you—physically, emotionally too—that the dish did my memory justice.”

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That contrast of familiarity and innovation are what characterize Garcia’s menus and are what have made him so successful. For example, at Broken Spanish: the pibil, a traditionally pork-centric dish, is made instead with golden beets, packed with smoky flavor, followed with a kick of heat. A tostada arrives topped with marina di chiogga (a type of Italian winter squash), a caulifower escabeche, chili cascabel, and ruby red gems of pomegranate seed providing a bright zing as you bite in. You can also get quesadillas, except these ones make a bold statement with their blue corn tortillas, stuffed with tender oxtail and plaintain. The sweet and savory of the quesadillas are especially tasty if you mop up some of the salsa quemada they’re served upon along with little dollops of creamy avocado.

The star of many diners’ meals is the chicharron: a generous slab of pork belly, which comes dressed with elephant garlic mojo and pickled herbs. Underneath the greenery, you’ll find the skin is unapologetically crispy and a knife through the dish reveals dark pink flesh, the meat impossibly tender with ribbons of velvety fat coursing through. Absolutely divine. Our personal favorite, though, is the sunchoke and spinach tamal, a homey but refined rendition of a classic comfort food. The sunchoke and spinach together with pawlet, chile ancho, and raw goat cheese gouda, are topped with a sweet and tangy salsa de fruta and a mornay-like sauce. With one bite we immediately understand that inexplicable feeling of comfort and warmth a newfangled take on a traditional dish can elicit.

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With food like this, it’s no wonder Garcia finds himself becoming a mentor of sorts, inspiring a generation of younger chefs learning to see Mexican-American cooking through a new lens. Cooking at Broken Spanish and B.S. Taqueria have also allowed Garcia to operate a kitchen in a way he’s never done so before.

“This is the first time that I’ve had a restaurant or cooked in a restaurant where it goes beyond having memorized a recipe or my muscles having learned a repetitive motion—I can make gnocchi, I can braise coq au vin, I can do all this great stuff, but there isn’t a reference point for me. It doesn’t connect beyond what someone else taught or trained me in. This is the first time I’m cooking beyond just a learned recipe. I’m cooking and saying ‘this isn’t right, this isn’t the same texture’—it’s cooking from memory and from a personal, more soulful connection. “

With numerous accolades already upon him, one thing is clear: the story of Garcia’s modern Mexican movement has only just begun.

All photos by Nate Williams

BROKEN SPANISH  | 1050 S. FLOWER ST, LOS ANGELES, CA 90015 | BROKENSPANISH.COM

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