Lazy Ox Canteen in downtown Los Angeles

The new Lazy Ox Canteen in downtown L.A. brings it all together: chef Josef Centeno's inventive cooking, a knowledgeable wait staff and an inviting, casual atmosphere. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Something is going on at the new Lazy Ox Canteen. With no sign out front (yet) and a quiet presence at the edge of Little Tokyo, this cozy tavern is, so far, flying under the radar. But locals -- the brave denizens of downtown -- are making it a headquarters of sorts, stopping in for a glass of craft brew and maybe some fried anchovies or red wine-braised beef neck. Some are on the lookout for chef Josef Centeno's baco, his signature flatbread with eclectic toppings. Or the stupendous burger on a house-baked bun.

Lazy Ox Canteen is poised to become the restaurant of the moment. Partners Michael Cardenas and Centeno have made all the right moves. The place has an edgy energy, a cozy, casual interior with huge bare filament bulbs swaying from the ceiling and wood-clad walls, a seriously great wait staff and a wildly interesting crowd. Not to mention Centeno's deliriously inventive cooking, all at affordable prices.

I'm torn. I'd like to keep the place an insider's secret. I like being able to decide, that night, to head over to San Pedro Street for dinner and being able to get in. That's about to change. In the future, reservations are probably going to need to be made well in advance, I'm sorry to say.

And to the Lazy Ox regulars who have found this newcomer such a welcoming haven, I apologize. But I have a job to do.

One reason the place works so well is that the two partners are such a good fit.

Cardenas, a founder of Sushi Roku and Boa Steakhouse, is in constant motion. Wearing jeans and tattoos, his hair longish, Cardenas greets guests and offers advice on the menu, sometimes ferrying dishes himself, and when the occasion demands, clearing tables. With this very personal project, he's made his way out of the corporate office and back to the action.

If Cardenas is a whirlwind of motion, Centeno is the calm at the center of the modest open kitchen. You hardly ever see him move, yet, by some sleight of hand, he and his small crew turn out an astonishing number of dishes. That includes the regular menu, which changes frequently, plus a blackboard of specials two columns wide. He's comfortable cooking in many cuisines, and his menu moves from Mexico to North Africa, the Middle East, France, Italy, Japan and the States.

Gutsy cooking

Centeno's cooking is so irresistible and gutsy, I haven't encountered a dish I haven't liked and mostly loved -- yet. After stints at Meson G, Opus, Lot 1 and Aubergine in Newport Beach, Centeno is reenergized and is finally hitting his stride. Between gigs, he seems to have taken a fresh look at what he's doing and has focused on real food, without the gimmicks.

This may not seem like such a big thing, but it is. His food is alive and vibrant -- and there are at least 20 things you'll want to order. But also for the first time, he's got terrific front-of-the-house support. All he has to do is cook -- and put in some very long hours.

How's that working out? Pretty well, actually.

This is one small-plates restaurant where you won't be bored after a couple of visits. Centeno constantly pulls new tricks out of the bag. He pickles. He bakes. He cures. And God knows what else. That's why I head straight to the blackboard to see what's new.

The fish market is close by, so he might have fried sardines or anchovies. I crave those anchovies fried in a light, puffy batter and drizzled with a filigree of honey water so they're briny and sweet at the same time. His delicate quick-fry of baby pompano beats out most of the far more elaborate fish dishes I've tasted in my restaurant rounds recently. It's practically vibrating with fresh, pure flavor.

All parts of the pig show up too. One time it is crispy pigs' ears cut thick like steak fries, an essay on various stages of crisp, served with some pungent aioli for dipping. A flatbread might be crowned with braised pork belly and greens. And a killer pasilla soup comes garnished with crema mexicana, sliced red grapes and pork belly chicharrones.

Centeno doesn't do light. So when he's into veal, it's a braised breast, a delicious cut hardly ever seen on local menus, paired with a lovely creamy potato salad.

A few items seem to have a permanent residence on the specials board, like the Ox burger, which, to my mind, is now the best burger in town. Made from a mix of sirloin, filet tips and enough fat to hold it all together and keep it moist, the patty is thick and suffused with a deep beefy flavor. The bun is house-baked, not too soft, and the fries and the pico de gallo aioli that come with it are exceptional. He even makes his own stone-ground mustard.

From the regular menu, one of the simplest dishes is the most satisfying: whipped Jersey cow ricotta to slather on toast. Brick-roasted mussels in house-made sriracha (Thai chile sauce) with French feta crumbled over the top is a great dish to share. And the combination of pot roast served on Cream of Wheat with puckery kumquats is terrific. So is the buttermilk-fried quail with quince mostarda. Don't even ask: It is, of course, house-made.

I wouldn't call the small plates so small. You'll probably want to share most of them. But for those who simply want dinner on one plate, check out the family-style specials for two, one for each day of the week. Tuesdays, I might mention, it's roast leg of lamb with rosemary and garlic.

Hard-working staff