Celebrating bold, unruly f lavors
Jonathan Gold reviews B.S. Taqueria, Chef Ray Garcia’s new place in downtown Los Angeles.
Have you heard about the taco with lardo and clams? In some circles it seems as if all anybody talks about is the taco with lardo and clams, which is the improbable specialty of B.S. Taqueria, a cocktail-oriented restaurant implanted into the carapace of the former Mo-Chica in downtown L.A. Because from the moment you spot the clam-and-lardo tacos, which at some point will be decorating the table of nearly everyone in the dining room, you know they are unlike anything else in even this taco-obsessed town.
The tortillas, for one thing, are heavy and thick, pressed to order from specially imported GMO-free corn. There is a salsa made with herbs and minced lardo, Tuscanstyle cured backfat from sustainably raised hogs, a handful of gently warmed clams and a drizzle of melted fat. There are wisps of fried garlic for crunch. And when you pick up the taco, trying to bend it into a classic U-shape without destroying the tortilla — the tortilla will crack anyway — what pours out is the pure, briny essence of the barnyard and the sea, a razorsharp chile heat and just a trickle of citrus. All pork and yet all clam.
If nobody told you that the flavor came from lardo, you would never figure it out on your own. The first several times I tried the dish, I could have sworn that the toasty porkiness came from the molten fat that is a side product of carnitas making — the Mexican kitchen’s equivalent of the duck fat left over from confit. I hadn’t quite figured out the lardo-enhanced gremolata. I didn’t detect Italian that was Italian at all. I thought the naming of the taco was a rhetorical flourish rather than a nod to technique.
If you have spent much time around the fringes of the Los Angeles scene in the last several years, in that odd underworld where it sometimes seems as if food exists more to be talked about than to be eaten, you have probably run across Ray Garcia, chef of B.S. Taqueria, who is poised to be the next big thing out of Los Angeles whether any of us likes it or not.
While his contemporaries were busy manning avant-garde taco trucks and exploring the nuances of the pop-up economy, Garcia kept his cooking quiet, as the chef of the restaurant Fig in Santa Monica’s Fairmont Miramar hotel. While other Los Angeles chefs flirted with foraged greens, wild fermentations and exotic animal fats, Garcia stuck to quinoa bowls, spinach-leaf lasagna and a Gaia-conscious menu that hewed so closely with the rhythms of the Santa Monica farmers market that I once joked about the possibility of a hidden Wednesday pipeline connecting the hotel with the stalls on Arizona Avenue. The closest thing to transgressive eats may have been the occasional special of bacon-wrapped bacon, a dish that kind of encapsulated everything about food in 2010.
But Garcia, who grew up on the Eastside, also helped establish gardens and cooking classes for at-risk kids. He let his freak flag fly at community dinners and events thrown by Cochon 555, a national wholehog-cooking competition, where he would doctor squeeze-bottle tamarind candy with spiced pig’s blood and prepare tamales out of spare parts the pig probably never knew it had. You could eat at Fig once a week for a year without suspecting the wildness in Garcia’s cuisine.
At B.S. Taqueria, enabled by restaurateur Bill Chait, who loves nothing more than to resuscitate the career of a wayward chef, Garcia has come into his own, proposing a bold, new style that is less Mexican than it is Mexican American, channeling the food experiences of the Eastside through his hardwon classical technique.
Other chefs may work through traditional dishes like chilpachole, mole and chiles en nogada (and maybe Garcia will too, at his upcoming Broken Spanish in the former Rivera space). Garcia celebrates the bold, unruly flavors of home and the Eastside streets — paper sacks stuffed with the cut fruit, powdered chile and lime sold under rainbow-colored umbrellas in East L.A.; with a messy, delicious snack mix of crisped wild rice, garbanzos, burnt onions and beans; or with curls of fried chicken skin spritzed with a little lemon. You can even get a plastic bag of Duritos (plain puffed-wheat chips) to doctor with lemon and salt.
Julian Cox has designed a long list of themed cocktails, including a kind of margarita served with a whole, anise-scented hoja santa leaf folded into the glass, but the house beverage is probably the B.S. Handshake, which is basically a lukewarm can of Tecate beer preseasoned with salt, chile and lime. B.S. Taqueria, even in the front dining room decorated with dozens of hanging molinillos, hand-carved wooden chocolate-beaters, dares you to take it seriously.
So there are those tacos, made on those bulletproof tortillas, of stewy carnitas, tongue in green sauce, crisp potatoes with chorizo sausage or the crunchy fried bologna cubes I would bet anything Garcia’s mother used to occasionally make for lunch. (The delicious tacos of squash and cream seem to be made with thinner griddled tortillas.)
Vegetarians will find a lot more to eat here than they might expect, not just the roasted hot pepper dish called chiles toreados or the roasted cactus salad, but also an unlikely beet torta — dripping slices of the root vegetable are dredged and fried like a traditional beef milanesa, then piled into a roll with avocado, pickled onions and lettuce. Garcia’s version of the ubiquitous, chile-rubbed pork al pastor is made with spicy, charred bits of cauliflower instead of the spit-grilled marinated pig, and it is very, very good.
The menu of plus-sized daily specials, meant to be shared by many, leans toward home cooking. Wednesday’s tomato-drenched shrimp noodles, Friday’s pork shank in green chile sauce or Sunday’s bacony Guadalajara-style beef-and-bean stew, carne en su jugo, served on giant platters could well be the centerpieces of Eastside family meals.
Even if you tend to skip dessert in Mexican restaurants, at B.S. Taqueria you should probably reconsider.
I am slightly in awe of the tres leches cake, moistened with milk, condensed milk and cream, which gives every impression of being made with sheet cake bought from a store but manages an almost unearthly perfection: the Eastside equivalent of the miracles wrought with crumbs and cereal milk by Christina Tosi at New York’s Momofuku. And the feather-light churros are the best I’ve ever tasted, dissolving like wafers on the tongue, leaving only a faint but vivid dream of cinnamon sugar and hot oil.
RAY GARCIA’S B.S. Taqueria creates a sensational clam and lardo taco, but he also lends a classic touch to food from the Eastside.