Navigating downtown is — there's no getting around it — tough. Even though I work there, I can never remember which one-way streets go which way. You can turn a corner and suddenly find yourself in the middle of Downtown Art Walk, with sidewalks teeming with thousands of pedestrians, or just as easily find yourself on a deserted avenue, shops closed up tight. The scene switches moods — active, lonely, thriving, haunted — from block to block and street to street.
One very alive stretch is Main Street in the Old Bank District. Next door to Pete's Café & Bar, Josef Centeno (of the Lazy Ox Canteen) has opened a new place called Bäco Mercat — Bäco for Centeno's signature flatbread sandwiches and Mercat, Catalan for market. With an inventive menu, smart urban setting and late-night hours, Bäco Mercat already feels like a fixture in the neighborhood. What's not to like? The food is gutsy and delicious, the prices moderate and you can drink — wine, craft beer, cocktails — well too. Stop in for a snack or a full-on meal, lunch or dinner.
Tables are covered in brown paper. The seating is mostly vintage wooden chairs with seats that lean back slightly and are actually quite comfortable. Massive brass-trimmed windows frame a view of the old Farmers and Merchants bank, with its ornate columns, a skewed vision of old downtown buildings coming back to life. Cobalt blue lights cascade down the facade of a parking garage across the street, making it much easier to find the 3-month-old restaurant.
At the few tables outside, guys in fedoras check their Facebook statuses, a couple quietly smokes and a woman reads an actual hardcover book. The place has a hard-core urban energy and an assorted crowd of interesting-looking people, including one night a table of three arguing about design and a gentleman wearing his hair in a bun and sporting a hot pink handkerchief in the breast pocket of his suit.
The one-page menu lists more than a dozen small plates and about the same number of bigger ones (the way to tell which is which is by the price), plus bäco, the flatbread sandwiches Centeno started making years ago for colleagues and friends.
Where to start? Small. It's easy to get carried away with this menu. The way Centeno endlessly invents, I'm wondering if he's somehow related to Pierre Gagnaire, the three-star French chef who spins dishes out the ends of his fingers. Though their styles couldn't be more different, every time I go to Bäco, I find a handful of fresh dishes that I can't leave without trying.
On a recent visit, it's "blistered" okra, cut in half lengthwise to reveal the pattern of the tiny seeds, cooked with tomato, mint and basil. The sweet tomato and herbs bring out a gentler side to okra. A Catalan-influenced eggplant salad with crunchy cucumber, nuggets of feta and whole leaves of mint in a vinegary dressing delights with its contrasts of texture. And then there's a killer dish of rich, sweet octopus and smoked ham hock with chickpeas and every once in a while a tiny cube of tart green apple that makes the whole thing sparkle.
Another time, Centeno serves up velvety chunks of abalone mushrooms roasted with garlic, thyme and a touch of lemon. Vegetarians should saint this guy. Pork lovers, though, should go straight to the pork di testa (housemade head cheese), fatty and delicious, perked up with capers, olive oil and parsley. And that's just the small dishes, which aren't all that small, actually, and which you'll want to share.
Two tables over, beneath the eye-catching orange-red neon sign spelling out bäco in fat cartoony letters, steam rises from a deep white porcelain bowl. A spoons dives in, mixes up the contents, lifting some broth, noodles, mushrooms and a bit of egg from the bowl. (I know what's in it because I ordered the bäzole after I caught the look of bliss on the eater's face.) The surprise is the crunchy bits of pork and beef carnitas bobbing in the concentrated pork-chile broth. It's a soup I can imagine Momofuku's David Chang appreciating.
Bäco Mercat is a lot quieter than Chang's New York restaurants, though. Ceilings are dramatically high, and bare filament bulb fixtures dangle low, the better to illuminate the food. Despite the music playing and the animated chatter, you can still hear yourself talk, maybe because the bar is at the front, near the door. Stop in for a Bäzerac made with rye, lemon verbena, pernod, bitters and a twist of lemon, among the handful of house cocktails at $11.
These days, it's hard to find many good bottles of wine under $30, but Bäco Mercat has a few, including Quinta de Azevedo Vinho Verde from Portugal. Whites or reds, a couple of examples each, "on tap" run $7 a glass, but don't expect Riedel glasses. He's gone with quaint decorative glassware, the kind you might find stashed away in your granny's attic. Add in some well-chosen bottled beers and half a dozen brews on tap. But what's really interesting are the house-made sweet and sour sodas in flavors like black mint, tangerine Szechuan and persimmon, just $3 each.
Centeno's food is rustic in the best sense. You can't call it American eclectic or global or any other convenient label, really. He seems to cook more from his palate than his head. That's how he comes up with such vibrant, lush flavors. The plating is very simple. It certainly doesn't seem as if he's spent nights poring over every page of the hyper-stylized Noma cookbook. He's a chef who likes to cook and likes to eat. You don't need to know much more about him than that.
He can make a straightforward lamb ragù for cavatelli pasta with the best of them. More compelling, though, is his highly original take on birria — super-wide ribbon noodles sauced with soft, almost shredded beef suffused with star anise and coriander. It's weirdly good. But then so is his spaghetti and meatballs, which comes with thick, old-fashioned garlic bread and a terrific Little Gem Caesar salad.
I could happily nosh on Szechuan-style chicken "ribs" accented with chile and sesame or another oddball dish, "English breakfast" of blood sausage buried in potato puree with a fried egg on top. I meant to order chicken and waffles but got distracted by confited suckling pig's crispy skin and tender meat. The best of intentions get waylaid here, as in ordering too much food.
And then there's the namesake bäco, an elongated floppy flatbread folded over like a mattress with filling between. I'm a big fan of the original pork with beef carnitas. I liked his exuberant fava fritter version with feta, poblano and chickpeas quite a lot too. His beef tongue schnitzel version with harissa, smoked aioli and pickle is going on my bucket list.
Instead of pizza, he's got coca, the Catalan crispy flatbread, which is more cracker-like, with the topping just sitting on the surface. Go for the double-crispy one, especially the one lavished with romesco, anchovy and lemon.
Desserts are unabashed comfort: mini banana cream pie swirled with butterscotch and cardamom, an almond-flavored cheesecake baked in a ramekin and showered with chocolate crumbs, or a warm, moist lemon verbena pound cake served with cool yogurt.
At Bäco Mercat, I get the idea Centeno is cooking just what he and his friends like to eat, so much the better for the rest of us who want to savor his quirky global cooking.
Rating: two and ½ stars
Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality.
****: Outstanding on every level.
**: Very good.
No star: Poor to satisfactory.
Location: 408 S. Main St., Los Angeles, (213) 687-8808, http://www.BacoMercat.com.
Price: Dishes, $6 to $22; bäco and coca, $9 to $12; dessert, $7.
Details: Open 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday to Saturday for lunch and 6 to 11 p.m. for dinner, and a 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturday morning "hair of the dog" brunch. Corkage, $20. Street or lot parking.
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