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.
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.