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.
Like many great dishes, the bäco -- 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 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.
At Lot 1, the bäco 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 bäco 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 crème fraîche and buttermilk.
Making a bäco, 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 bäco, 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 bäco’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.