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 baco. 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 baco, 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-baco lunch menu -- it’s come to rest in these scrappy new digs.
Like many great dishes, the baco -- rhymes with taco -- has an accidental provenance. Years ago, after a long night at Meson G, the now-closed Hollywood restaurant where Centeno was then executive chef, he was cooking for his hungry staff. He took some of his flatbreads and piled them high with a choice pick of what was at hand in the kitchen: pork belly, short ribs, smoked paprika aioli -- even some of the salbitxada sauce (a garlicky almond-tomato Catalonian sauce) that had been paired with the ribs.
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 baco to go
Centeno took his baco 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 baco 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 baco 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 baco, now made with pork belly and red wine-braised paleron (pot roast), Centeno makes four variations.
The vegetarian baco centers on crisp Japanese eggplant; lamb sausage baco 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 baco features chicken escabeche (marinated chicken) radicchio and zhoug, a spicy chile sauce from Yemen; and the pesco baco 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 baco 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 baco takes a surprisingly short time to construct.
It starts with the flatbread, which, even for the first baco, 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 baco 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.
At Lot 1, the baco has come into its own. “Here’s where I’ve really started to focus on the sauces, [which are] the foundation.”
A system of flavors
CENTENO’S sauces -- dense, complex, idiosyncratic -- demonstrate the mind-set of a saucier. One sauce might be good, but combine several and you’ll get something truly interesting, a whole system of textures and flavors.
The pesco baco has four: ancho-pomegranate sauce; a guacamole-type sauce, made with crushed avocados, sherry vinegar, lemon zest, olive oil, shallots and chives; the salbitxada; and a garlic-chive sauce made with whipped creme fraiche and buttermilk.
Making a baco, despite all its components, is fun, time-friendly and suited to last-minute riffing. The sauces (make one or two or all of them), pickled onions and flatbread can all be made ahead of time.
Then, for the pesco baco, just fry the fish, reheat the bread and put everything together -- or make a summertime dinner party out of it and have your guests construct their own.
Lot 1 is an unpretentious restaurant, telephone-booth small, a place that seems cobbled together with little money and less sleep.
And if you think the restaurant is small, peer over the counter into the kitchen: four burners, one oven, one fryer, one refrigerator. On opening night, there were four pans.
The restaurant doesn’t yet have a liquor license or even a coffee machine, but the chef has a Pacojet on his cramped counter and specialty ingredients (black garlic, dried lemon verbena) newly delivered from Le Sanctuaire, the San Francisco culinary boutique.
After months of looking for a location for a restaurant, Centeno says, he was desperate to cook again.
At the end of April, he saw a kitchen under construction in a space just down the hill from where he lives.
He met Lot 1 owner Eileen Leslie -- who was looking for a chef -- and about eight days later, they opened the restaurant.
“I’m still kind of in shock,” Centeno says.
As the chef loads the warm flatbread with the baco’s myriad elements, then folds and wraps it in paper and foil -- all great street food is portable, with or without skateboard -- he seems not in shock at all, but in his element.
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Total time: 30 minutes plus chilling time
Note: Adapted from a recipe by Josef Centeno. Panko (Japanese bread crumbs) is available at well-stocked supermarkets and Asian markets.
2tablespoons minced chives
2tablespoons minced shallot
2 tablespoons lemon zest
2 tablespoons parsley, minced
Scant 2 pounds albacore tuna steaks, about 1 1/2 inches thick (you can substitute tilapia, cod or pollock)
Freshly ground black pepper
3 cups panko
Vegetable oil for frying
About 2/3 cup ancho-pomegranate sauce (see recipe)
2 medium avocados, peeled, seeded and sliced (into 20 slices)
About 2/3 cup pickled red onion (see recipe)
3 1/3 tablespoons garlic-chive cream (see recipe)
About 2/3 cup salbitxada sauce (see recipe)
1. In a small bowl, combine the chives, shallots, lemon zest and parsley and set aside.
2. Cut the albacore into 10 pieces about 2 inches by 1 1/2 inches (each piece will be about 3 ounces). Season each piece with one-fourth teaspoon salt and a pinch of pepper.
2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs with 2 tablespoons of the herb mixture (reserve the remaining amount) and set aside. Place the panko in another medium bowl.
3. Dredge the fish in the egg mixture, then in the panko; place on a parchment-lined baking pan. Refrigerate, uncovered, for 30 minutes.
4. Fill a medium, heavy pot with enough oil to come about 3 inches up the sides (or use a deep fryer). Heat the oil until a thermometer inserted reads 375 degrees. Fry the fish, a few pieces at a time, until the panko turns golden and the fish is seared, a little over 1 minute. Set the fish aside on a paper towel until all of the fish is fried. Slice each piece lengthwise into four slices.
5. To assemble a baco, place a flatbread on a plate. Spoon about 1 tablespoon ancho-pomegranate sauce over the bread, top with two slices of avocado, then four slices of the fish. Top the fish with a scant tablespoon each of pickled onion and salbitxada and a teaspoon of garlic-chive cream (or to taste). Drizzle a good pinch of the reserved herb mixture over the top. Gently fold one end of the flatbread over to form a sandwich, and serve immediately. Repeat with the remaining flatbreads.
Each serving: 681 calories; 31 grams protein; 52 grams carbohydrates; 6 grams fiber; 39 grams fat; 6 grams saturated fat; 149 mg. cholesterol; 1,004 mg. sodium.
Total time: 1 hour, 10 minutes, plus rising time
Servings: Makes 10 flatbreads
Note: Adapted from a recipe by Josef Centeno. This makes more yogurt mixture than is needed. The remainder can be used as a dip or spread and will keep, refrigerated, for two days.
1 cup plain Greek yogurt
Juice of 1/2 lime
1 1/2 teaspoons dried culinary lavender
1 clove garlic, minced
1 1/2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger
1 1/2 teaspoons dry yeast
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
6 tablespoons olive oil
3 cups flour
1. In a nonreactive bowl, mix the yogurt, lime juice, lavender, garlic and ginger. Season with one-half teaspoon salt, or to taste. Set aside.
2. In a large bowl, combine the yeast with 1 cup warm water and the sugar. Cover and allow to sit for 10 minutes, or until frothy. Separately, mix the olive oil with 3 tablespoons of the yogurt mixture.
3. Stir half of the flour into the yeast mixture, then add the yogurt mixture. Stir in the rest of the flour and the 1 teaspoon salt, and knead for 10 minutes, or until the dough is elastic. Place the dough in an oiled bowl, loosely cover and allow to rise in a warm area until doubled in size, about 1 1/2 hours.
4. Punch down the dough and knead for another 10 minutes. Divide the dough into 10 equal portions; roll out each into an oval a little over
8 inches long and 4 inches wide. If the dough contracts while rolling, let it rest while you roll out another piece, then come back to it (it will relax and roll more easily).
5. Heat a seasoned cast-iron griddle or frying pan over medium-high heat. Oil the surface lightly with canola oil and grill the dough, one or two pieces at a time, until each is puffed and golden-brown on the bottom, 30 seconds. Flip the bread over and grill the second side for 30 seconds, until golden-brown. The bread will be soft, not crispy. Keep warm until ready to serve. (You also can rewarm the bread in a 400-degree oven for 1 to 2 minutes.)
Each flatbread: 216 calories; 4 grams protein; 30 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 9 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 1 mg. cholesterol; 121 mg. sodium.
Pickled red onion
Total time: 15 minutes
Servings: Makes about 2 cups Note: Adapted from Josef Centeno.
1/4 cup sherry vinegar
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons sugar
1/4 of a jalapeno pepper, quartered
1/2 bunch fresh mint, leaves removed and sliced crosswise very thinly
Freshly ground black pepper
1 bay leaf
1 red onion, trimmed and julienned lengthwise
1. In a small saucepan, combine the vinegar, oil, sugar, jalapeno, mint, a couple grinds of pepper and the bay leaf and bring just to a boil.
2. Put the onion in a bowl and pour the hot mixture over it. Allow the mixture to sit for two hours, stirring occasionally. This will keep, refrigerated, for two days.
Each one-eighth cup: 40 calories; 0 protein; 3 grams carbohydrates; 0 fiber; 3 grams fat; 0 saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 1 mg. sodium.
Total time: 30 minutes
Servings: Makes a scant 1 1/2 cups
Note: Adapted from a recipe by Josef Centeno.
1 poblano pepper
1 red bell pepper
2 medium ancho peppers (dried poblanos), rehydrated
1/2 small serrano chile
1/4 cup olive oil
Generous 1/2 cup toasted walnuts
1 clove garlic
3 tablespoons dry bread crumbs (toasted white country bread)
1 teaspoon pomegranate molasses
1 teaspoon cumin
Juice and zest of 1/2 lemon
1/2 bunch cilantro
Freshly ground black pepper
1. Roast the poblano and red bell peppers on a rack over a gas burner over high heat, turning until the skin is completely charred, about 10 minutes. Cool the peppers in a bowl loosely covered with plastic wrap, then peel and seed.
2. Put the poblano, bell and ancho peppers, serrano chile, olive oil, walnuts, garlic, bread crumbs, pomegranate molasses, cumin, lemon and cilantro in a food processor or blender; puree well.
3. Strain the sauce through a medium-mesh strainer and season with 1 1/2 teaspoons salt and a couple grinds of black pepper, or to taste. This will keep, refrigerated, for three days.
Each tablespoon: 49 calories; 1 gram protein; 3 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 4 grams fat; 0 saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 153 mg. sodium.
Total time: 10 minutes
Servings: Makes about 1 1/2 cups
Note: From Josef Centeno.
1 cup creme fraiche
1/4 cup buttermilk
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoons thinly sliced chives
1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
3/4 teaspoon lemon juice
Freshly ground black pepper
In the bowl of a standing mixer -- or in a large bowl, using a hand-held mixer -- whip the creme fraiche until light and airy. Stir in the buttermilk, garlic, chives, lemon zest and juice. Season with one-fourth teaspoon salt and a couple grinds of black pepper, or to taste. Refrigerate 1 hour before serving. This will keep, refrigerated, for one day.
Each tablespoon: 22 calories; 0 protein; 1 gram carbohydrate; 0 fiber; 2 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 4 mg. cholesterol; 32 mg. sodium.
Total time: 20 minutes
Servings: Makes about 2 cups
Note: Adapted from a recipe by Josef Centeno. Please see FDA updates regarding tomato safety: www.fda.gov/oc/opacom/hottopics/tomatoes.html.
2 tablespoons whole almonds
1/2 serrano chile, seeded, diced
6 cloves garlic, minced
2 ripe tomatoes, cored, seeded and diced
Zest of 1/2 lemon
2 tablespoons thinly sliced Italian parsley
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
Freshly ground pepper
1. Toast the almonds in a saute pan over medium-high, shaking frequently, until golden and fragrant, about 5 minutes.
2. Combine the almonds, chile, garlic, tomatoes, lemon, parsley, vinegar and one-half cup olive oil in a medium bowl. Season with one-fourth teaspoon salt and a couple grinds of black pepper, or to taste, and adjust consistency with additional olive oil if desired. This will keep for two days, refrigerated.
Each tablespoon: 36 calories; 0 protein; 1 gram carbohydrate; 0 fiber; 4 grams fat; 0 saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 19 mg. sodium.