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Bartender Dominick Haider dishes mixed olives and pecorino. Photo by Carin Krasner

Messy Chic

by Lesley Balla | Angeleno magazine | March 29, 2012

It’s magic when vision, talent and space converge. Just ask Josef Centeno, who’s been cheffing in Los Angeles since the early 2000s, but never at one place long enough to truly be appreciated. But today, in his new downtown restaurant, Bäco Mercat, the toque is relaxed, comfortable and cooking up something special.

Bäco, named for a sandwich-flatbread-taco hybrid that Centeno served as an off-the-menu late-night snack at other restaurants, is the young chef’s first solo effort, his vision. The food is bold and assertive, dishes full of spices, sauces and influences from all over the globe—French, Mexican, Japanese, Catalan—usually served in some messily refined fashion.

Somehow it’s exactly what you’d expect to find in the industrial-chic space in the heart of the Old Bank District, where buildings are fitted with exposed silver ducts that run along high ceilings. The space also comes complete with the requisite low-hanging filament lights and simple kraft paper placemats cover dark tables. The art-centric crowd totally gets it, even if they aren’t sure what they’re getting into until they sit down.

With owner Michael Cardenas, Centeno made the Lazy Ox Canteen one of Little Tokyo’s most popular gastropubs. Before that he hopped around from Meson G to Opus to Lot 1—all but the latter now closed, though Centeno never forgot his food ideas. With the bäco and other whimsical dishes in his repertoire, he gained quite the following. Like a Pied Piper of young, eager foodies, he always attracted a crowd no matter where he landed.

He’s always been his own unintentional pop-up.

But things have really come together for the young chef at Bäco. First, there’s the bäco itself, surely a lunch staple for locals by now. The soft oval flatbread is made in-house, stuffed with a variety of meats, vegetables, sauces and slaws. It’s hard to say which is my favorite: “The Original,” with its chunks of fried pork belly, beef carnitas and salbitxada, a spicy, almondy red sauce; or the fried beef tongue with harissa and smoked aioli, the richness cut with pickles and cabbage. All ooze from comfy pockets; these are three-napkin meals.

The cocas are also wildly popular, and deservedly so. These pizzas, a Catalonian cracker-thin flatbread, come with a variety of toppings, from smoked tomato and jalapeños to merguez sausage, harissa and feta cheese. I loved the one smothered with salsa verde and dotted with pancetta and plops of fresh ricotta. And it’s topped with a golden fried egg, a theme you’ll see throughout the menu.

While he could rest on the bäco alone, there are a slew of shared plates, in the same vein as Lazy Ox, from which to choose. And that’s where it gets difficult: Roasted Brussels sprouts are rustic and spiked with anchovies, garlic and sharp pecorino cheese; crispy and salty shrimp are fried whole, with heads and all; lamb ragù contains handmade cavatelli pasta. It’s all good. And don’t miss the bazole soup, a ramen-pozole hybrid of steaming beefy broth infused with five spices and herbs, big chunks of pork belly, squiggles of house-made noodles, and, of course, a fried egg. I swear it fortified one friend who was getting over a cold.

Even when some of Centeno’s dishes still seem like works in progress, they’re so full of flavor that you can’t put the fork down. His chicken and waffles—a mound of greens, chopped up fried chicken thighs, peppery bacon gravy and fried onion slivers—all overwhelm the Belgian waffle triangle below. Some layers overpower others, but it’s so delicious, the plate still goes away clean.

Service is as cool as the space. There’s no attitude, just a well-informed lot that knows the menu and how to guide you through it. With so much to choose from, our waiter let us know when to stop without going overboard. The temptation to over-order is great. There is always just one more thing I have to get, in case it’s not there the next time I return.

The cocktails are smart and playful, especially the gin concoction made with Centeno’s Bäco Pop!, an orange-ginger-juniper soda he bottles. One night, stopping for a quick bite at the bar, the bartender hands me something to taste. It’s one of the “sweet & sour sodas,” a spritz made with Meyer lemon-infused vinegar and a bit of soda. There are several on the menu; that was just a new one they were trying out. How refreshing it was, especially after a big, spicy meal.

The beauty of Bäco Mercat is that you can slip in for a quick bite, a bäco and a Pop!, and get out for under $20. Or, you can linger over waves of dishes, everyone picking something from someone else’s plate across the table, as glasses of tempranillo or pints of Ommegang pale ale are passed around. It’s whatever you want it to be, which is exactly what Centeno must have envisioned.

Bäco Mercat
***
408 S. Main St., L.A., 213.687.8808, bacomercat.com

Hours
Lunch: Mon.-Sat., 11:30am-2:30pm; dinner: Mon.-Sat., 6-11pm

Where To Sit
The patio is perfect on warm days and nights, especially with the school-seat stools.

Who’s There
Local artists, FIDM students and teachers, musicians and stylish downtown loft dwellers

The Pop!
You can buy the bottles to go. It is so refreshing, and also makes a great mixer for cocktails.

What It Costs
Small plates: $2-$38; bäcos: $9-$18; cocas: $10-$16; dessert: $8-$12