We first met Chef Ray Garcia while he was chef at FIG in the Viceroy Santa Monica. He created a lengua banh mi that to this day is one of the best sandwiches I have ever eaten. Earlier this month, Chef Garcia opened a little taqueria Downtown with his business partner, Jacob Shure. BS Taqueria doesn’t mean what you think it means. It stands for “Broken Spanish,” their new restaurant that will be opening up in about a month in the old Rivera space near LA Live.
The taqueria is cozy and inviting, painted with bright colors and adorned with Mexican pottery. Wooden hot chocolate whisks hang from the ceiling and papel picados flutter in the hall. At the end of the hallway is a room that has been transformed into something straight out of “Where the Wild Things Are.” Walls are covered with a stylized jungle mural, and plastic vines hang down to create an otherworldly effect.
The sensibility here is not so much about Mexico as it is about Los Angeles. The menu reflects influences from a variety of cultures, and local childhood favorites such as bologna and Orange Bangs get a nod. Although the food is of the highest quality, the vibe is casual. At lunchtime you order at the counter, and the food is brought to your table.
In spite of the wide variety of dishes, the main focus here is tacos. They come two to an order on rustic handmade corn tortillas. Carnitas arrive on a layer of avocado topped with salsa verde. The pork is juicy and tender without any crunchy bits. Chicken tacos consist of huge slabs of moist breast meat dressed simply with salsa fresca.
The first bite I took of a lengua taco with chile verde was so flavorful I swooned. There are none of the tough or rubbery bits found in your average taco truck taco. The chorizo and papas tacos had a thick swath of rich, mild chorizo topped with little potato wedges and a sprinkling of cotija cheese.
Clams and lardo may seem like an unusual combination, but fat is exactly what clams have been missing. Garlic chips add flavor and visual interest. I will not lie; the bologna taco is unusual, but not because of the meat. The bologna is delectable, made in-house and cut into thick pan-fried chunks. The surprise comes from the addition of a vinegary escabeche and Japanese Kewpie mayonnaise.
If you want to enhance your taco experience, there are snacks, known as “bolsas,” including Duritos, the chef’s take on those fried orange wagon wheels you see tied to the vendedore’s cart. One must-have among the bolsas is the Lemon-Pepper Chicken Chicharrones. Fried chicken skins mimic the standard pork chicharrones with a bonus of chicken oysters, which is meat from under the wing of the chicken. Lemon and whole Shishito peppers intensify the addictive dish.
Under “Platos Especiales,” we were enamored with the masa ball soup. Why didn’t anyone ever think of doing this before? Made in the traditional manner with schmaltz, the masa balls are almost identical to matzoh balls, light as air with a hint of corn. The clear broth gets a boost from a squeeze of lime and fresh herbs like cilantro and epazote. The seafood cocktail known as Campechana Verde is on of our favorite dishes of the entire year, with squid, scallops Snapper, cucumber, shrimp, octopus, and tomatillo ready to be spooned onto bite-sized tostadas. Citrus and fresh seafood will always be a winning combination.
Chef Ray Garcia is known for his inclusive menus, and he has not forgotten you vegetable lovers. There are fruits, vegetables, rice and beans, as well as the intriguing Beet Torta and Cauliflower al Pastor. At dinnertime there is a different special plate every night. Monday night it’s mushroom tamales, Friday night it’s Snapper Veracruz and on Saturdays you can enjoy birria.
The drink menu was developed by Julian Cox, inspired by the flavors of Mexican cuisine, such as gazpacho tamarind, and mole. The big attention-getter has been the mezcal spiked Orange Bang, which really does have the frothy consistency of the popular old-school beverage. There is also an ever-changing selection of aguas frescas. Currently the flavors are blood orange and honeydew melon. For those needing an horchata fix, the almost identical cebada switches out rice for barley.
The dessert menu, developed by the chef in collaboration with Pastry Chef Roxana Jullapat, is not to be missed, diet or no. Tres Leches is a longtime favorite, so the fact that their version of the cake is fantastic is no big surprise. But the churros — my God, the churros! They are unlike anything you have ever eaten. They are so light and ethereal, they are like the angels of the churro universe. I am ashamed for the rough, crunchy dough sticks that dare call themselves by the same name as these delicate bites of pure heaven. The churros are accompanied by a chocolate-chili sauce, which to me is just gilding the lily.
Service at the restaurant is first-rate. During a recent dinner, a hostess approached me and gesturing toward the table asked, “Is there anything I can replace for you or bring you to improve your experience?” I was completely nonplussed, staring at the table until I realized she must have seen me hand over my cocktail to my dining partner after I was finished taste-testing it and assumed I didn’t like it. I noticed halfway through another meal that my used napkin had been mysteriously replaced with a fresh new one by unseen hands. That is not only great, but unobtrusive service.
The cashiers are friendly, and the servers are happy to take your drink order or explain the menu, even during lunch. In fact, everyone in the room is friendly and smiling. They really make you feel like part of the family. Every time I left, I had about eight people standing in the window grinning and enthusiastically waving goodbye.
(Tres Leches cake and churros were comped for my birthday)