Cel­e­brat­ing bold, un­ruly f la­vors

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - JONATHAN GOLD RESTAU­RANT CRITIC jonathan.gold@la­times.com

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.

Jay L. Clen­denin L. A. Times

Pho­tog raphs by Jay L. Clen­denin Los An­ge­les Times

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.

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