Florencia 13: Gangsters Get Their Burritos

California expats find themselves a clubhouse in NYC

You can't imagine how many complaints I've fielded from Angelenos who can't stand NYC's Mexican food. Invariably, the tortillas are all wrong, the tacos filled with funny meats, the burritos never quite the right size or shape and loaded with random extraneous crap. (They ponder: Why can't Gothamites put the rice on the outside?) I never quite know how to address these laments, since our city has perfectly fine Mexican fare, including authentic Pueblan and Guerreran, Tex-Mex, bistro-Mex, haute-cuisine-Mex, taco-truck-Mex, celebrity-chef-Mex, chain-Mex, and margarita mills serving awful-Mex as a sideline. We're simply deficient in Cal-Mex.

What are the cuisine's hallmarks? Well, it originated in the Sonoran Desert of northwestern Mexico and features sauces made with either red or green chiles, having a consistency somewhere between gravy and broth. In fact, you can eat these sauces like soup with or without meat. The recipes come via a long-assimilated immigrant population that goes back 250 or so years, constantly rejuvenated by fresh waves of newcomers from south of the border. Nevertheless, Cal-Mex is generally less spicy than other forms of Mexican, and the practitioners often prefer flour tortillas to corn tortillas. Yes, it bears certain resemblances to Tex-Mex, though less yellow-cheesy and certainly not as enamored of ground beef, seen in such Lone Star specialties as migas, puffy tacos, chili con carne, and flautas.

Then one day, I received an urgent communiqué from Gustavo Arellano, author of the celebrated Ask a Mexican column. He's also the editor of our sister publication OC Weekly and an undoubted expert on Mexican food. Arellano reported that one of his writers, Dave Lieberman, had stumbled on a Cal-Mex place in Greenwich Village recently. Publishing his find in a blog piece, Lieberman noted that the restaurant, while not wonderful, produced a fair approximation of his state's Chicano cuisine. But he faulted the homemade salsa ("watery and tomatoey, like Chevys'"), prevalence of salads, and chile relleno sauce.

Inside, your Cal-Mex and flaming margarita
Liz Barclay
Inside, your Cal-Mex and flaming margarita

Forty-five minutes later, this gabacho was there. Named after an L.A. street gang, seven-year-old Florencia 13 looks like any ancient Village bar—boxy and dark but, in this case, decorated with a low-rider BMX bike, a Cheech and Chong poster, and a 3-D illuminated Spanish mission. Drop in around 6 any evening, and you'll overhear homesick Angelenos.

Let's begin with the menu's really surprising stuff. The chile relleno ($6) is a credit to the fryer's art, a fresh Anaheim pepper stuffed with cheese and smothered in a weird creamy pink sauce. (In the Pueblan cuisine we have here, the chiles are fried in a heavy egg batter and proffered in a plain-ish tomato sauce.) You can also have Cal-Mex cuisine's ur-specialty: pork in green chili or beef in red chili ($18), though the gravy will seem a bit thin.

The burritos are decidedly different than those you find at, say, Benny's Burritos. Instead of a junk heap of six or seven fillings, the default at Florencia is just beans and meat. You can request rice, too, either inside or out. These flour-tortilla valises are named after geographic features of the L.A. area. Confining pork chunks, green chile sauce, and red beans within its floury flanks, the flagship is called "The Original East L.A." ($14). You can also order the Santa Monica (chicken and beans in pink sauce), the Silverlake (guacamole, beans, lettuce, and tomato in tomatillo sauce), or the Playa del Rey (shrimp, rice, beans, and pico de gallo). But for real SoCal savor, best to demand mojado ($2.75 extra), in which a burrito of your choice is drenched in chili gravy, dusted with cheese, and baked. Look out, stomach!

Other highlights of the menu include a humongous oven-roasted enchilada in a flour tortilla (ours are usually assembled with smaller white-corn tortillas and warmed, but not baked), al pastor taquitos (three mini corn tortillas stuffed with marinated pork and pineapple), and, especially, giant deep-fried flour-tortilla flautas disguised under iceberg lettuce and crema like gang members hiding under a bush. All may be had à la carte ($4.75 to $11) or perched in multiples on massive platters with rice, tomatillo salsa, cheese-dusted beans, and a dab of decent guac ($15 to $22). (The guacamole is mainly notable for its garlic and little else; here, we prefer chopped onions and cilantro.)

You should start your meal with a flaming margarita, though that flame is confined to a small slice of cucumber floating on top. It's indicative of a playful element in Mexican cuisine that might be missing in our own renditions, and perhaps the drink will transport you to a beachside shack in Malibu. Or then again, maybe it will just singe your eyebrows.

rsietsema@villagevoice.com

For more restaurant coverage, check out our food blog, Fork in the Road, at voicefoodblog.com. Follow us on Twitter @ForkintheRoadVV.

 
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9 comments
rickdeslick
rickdeslick

another example of bitches that don't know shit trying to act like it's cool to rip from the hood. it's like naming a soul food place "rolling 20s crips" or "crenshaw mafia."

you don't fucking name yourself after one of the most notorious gangs in la, stupid fucking idiots. this place needs a hood check. if i ever stumble upon this place, they'll get theirs.

Reuben Simon
Reuben Simon

All of this is b.s. I'm from Los Angeles. Your description of "Cal-Mex" is utter hokum (read: bologna). And bologna (or hokum - read: b.s.) is pretty much what passes for Mexican food in NYC. I'm sorry, but it's simply not a matter of regional specificity. There is just no such thing as Cal-Mex. Or, for that matter, Tex-Mex or any other kind of Mex. There's Mex. End of story. The Anglo-hyphenates are there for whiteys who don't want to reckon with the fact that there is such a thing as "real" Mexican food and that they do not know how to make it much less decipher it among the fakes. New Yorkers have been played for suckers for so long that they don't realize that what they (we, I've been here for 6+ years now) are served is no more Mexican than Domino's Pizza is Italian.

I mean no disrespect, but the sham has got to be revealed for what it is. Burritos are not Mexican food. And neither is most of the crap we're served in NYC. You may like it, but don't fool yourself into thinking it's the "real" deal. I realize authenticity is a shifting idea and open to interpretation. But you have to start somewhere. And, here in New York, the base level of acceptability for Mexican food is so low that we accept anything (at any price, no matter how high) if it even resembles what we know as the real deal.

Dean Morris
Dean Morris

We don't care if Californians like our food. Bring us something we like, then we care. Texans laugh at Californian mex and viersa anyway, and Mexicans laugh at anything urban within 100 miles of the US border.

I stopped coddling Californian whines when a friend from San Francisco sent back her orange juice at a cheap East Village diner because it wasn't fresh squeezed. Some differences are from simple differences, some west coast food trends are genius. I havn't had good pizza over there, so maybe that's the same whine as theirs.

Brooks Remington
Brooks Remington

Reuben Simon just described you to a T. Beyond clueless.

Terry B. Gardner
Terry B. Gardner

NOT mex...but definately south of the border, via Brooklyn (Williamsburg section on 4th) CARINO. Check it out! FABULOUS GORDITAs and wonderful daily specials...all fresh, fresh, fresh!

Edward James Almost
Edward James Almost

This place does have passable Cal-Mex. I think "fair approximation" is about right. I've been and the waiter wouldn't even call the pork in green chili sauce "chile verde," but said it was "the closest they had." Their margaritas are above average, and may be their best "dish."

That said, per usual, Sietsema doesn't have a clue. Cal-Mex totally aside, please don't compare NY and SoCal Mexican food. In terms of simple demographics, and resulting cuisine, there's just no comparison. For NYCers to get over their inferiority complex, just think if someone told you with a straight face that bagels and pizza were as good out in LA? Get it now?

Also "fried in a heavy egg batter and proffered in a plain-ish tomato sauce" is how Chile Relleno are made in SoCal, replace "plainish" with delicious. I've never seen a SoCal enchilada made with a flour tortilla. There is a SoCal mexican specific form of taco (see Tito's as an example) but even those are fried corn. I don't know where the claims of it being less spicy come from since your average your average Angeleno can usually just laugh off a NYC menu's heat warning. Pinche guey...

burning_plastic
burning_plastic

Agreed. Sauce for Chile Relleno is made by chopping up an onion or two very fine, sauteeing it until browned, adding tomato sauce, the small size, and letting it thicken and brown. Maybe a little salt. I've never heard of a flour tortilla enchilada, though they are always baked.

Lthomas
Lthomas

The "Original East LA" for $14...hahahaha. In the original and current ELA $14 will buy at least 3 burritos....Fucken' NY Gabachos will never get it....

billyjoe
billyjoe

To quote Cindy Adams: "$14 for a burrito? Only in New York, kids...."

 
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