ON A RECENT sun-shot June morning in Echo Park, Josef Centeno left home and skateboarded down the hill to Lot 1, the new restaurant on Sunset Boulevard, to demonstrate how to make a bäco. It was a short, fast commute, powered by gravity and the creative engines that have been turning serious rpm since Centeno, most recently chef at Opus in Los Angeles, put on chef's whites again after a hiatus.
The bäco, Centeno's signature hybrid dish ("It looks like a gyro, has the feel of pizza, you eat it like a taco") has trailed him from restaurant to restaurant; now -- in five variations on an all-bäco lunch menu -- it's come to rest in these scrappy new digs.
It was a messy, lip-smacking, utterly delectable invention -- improvised street food with a global pedigree.
It was also a measure of the way Centeno thinks about food: His dishes are built from a crazy quilt of components with the spinning machinery of logic and imagination, curiosity and technique.
Taking his bäco to go
CENTENO took his bäco with him to Opus, where he refined it at the "family meal" (as the informal meals that chefs cook for their staff are called) and, at the suggestion of friends, put it on the menu.
Now at Lot 1, Centeno showcases his more laid-back side with the bäco lunch menu, and dinner demonstrates the chef's high-end talents. In the evening, the food goes formal with plates of rib-eye and bone marrow toast, English pea soup with soft poached egg and candied rhubarb, and sophisticated desserts that show off his pastry experience (for a time he was Manresa's pastry chef). And coming soon, the wildly creative tasting menus that Centeno was known for at Opus.
Centeno's bäco is, as the name and its umlaut imply, a crossbreed, even something of a mutt. To make one at home, spread a supple Middle Eastern-inspired flatbread with a mix of sauces that combines elements of Spanish, Greek, Mexican, African and French cuisines, then work your way up, ingredient by ingredient.
In addition to the original bäco, now made with pork belly and red wine-braised paleron (pot roast), Centeno makes four variations.
The vegetarian bäco centers on crisp Japanese eggplant; lamb sausage bäco has croquettes made from potato and morcilla (a Spanish blood sausage) and caraway-pepper sauce ("like harissa, only with a lot more caraway"); the el pollo bäco features chicken escabeche (marinated chicken) radicchio and zhoug, a spicy chile sauce from Yemen; and the pesco bäco is a tasty composition of panko-crusted albacore, pickled onion, and four (count them) different sauces.
A deft hand
WITH HIS skateboard propped against the wall outside his tiny kitchen, Centeno starts cooking, demonstrating the pesco bäco with a quiet, off-hand intensity. He whips together a quick salbitxada sauce, stirs other sauces that he made the day before, then rolls out a nub of dough while he heats oil for the gorgeous rose-colored cuts of albacore.
Even considering that Centeno moves at chef-speed, a bäco takes a surprisingly short time to construct.
It starts with the flatbread, which, even for the first bäco, Centeno has made from scratch. His flatbread dough, like much of his food, is shot through with unexpected ingredients.
A lebni sauce, made with Greek yogurt, dried lavender, minced garlic and fresh ginger, is stirred into a basic bread dough, giving it body and texture as well as a flavor jolt.
After the dough rises, it's rolled out and quickly cooked in a hot, oiled pan or griddle. (Centeno says you can use any oil with a high smoke point; he uses ghee, which he makes himself by the vat.) The flatbreads are pliant yet slightly charred and crisped, faintly nutty, with a kick from the garlic and lavender in the lebni.
When Centeno left Opus at the end of last year to take a much-needed vacation -- "2 1/2 weeks in Europe, over 60 restaurants" -- and then look for a place of his own, he applied for a trademark for the bäco and, again, took it with him.
Centeno, a 34-year-old Texan, is an alum of the Culinary Institute of America (he did stages at the New York City restaurants Vong and Daniel while in cooking school); of Manresa in Los Gatos, where he was the chef de cuisine; and of Tim and Liza Goodell's Aubergine. Add Meson G and Opus to that impressive list, and you begin to sense the experience that Centeno packs into his cooking.
Josef Centeno's bäco -- think gyro-pizza-taco -- is a saucy, street-savvy creation
It comes in five variations of flatbreads, sauces and fillings for lunch at Lot 1 in Echo Park, and why not try it at home?
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