I was walking downtown near Fourth Street one Sunday afternoon eager to visit my favorite brunch spot, Banquette Café, but was greeted with signs that the establishment had closed and was making way for a new restaurant. I am relieved that Chef Josef Centeno is the one who took over with Bäco Mercat, as I’m already a fan of his Lazy Ox Canteen a few blocks away.
Some of the best culinary creations can come from hours spent in the kitchen experimenting with ingredients or the need to feed lots of people with what you have available. Enter the Bäco, a flatbread creation by Chef Centeno that he came up with when he was the Executive Chef for Hollywood’s Meson G. He used the flatbreads that were left over from the evening’s dinner service and topped them with the meats that were available at any given time, like pork belly and short ribs, to feed the back and front of the house staff after long hours serving guests.
The Bäco soon became the signature family meal for the staff at each restaurant Chef Centeno worked at. Soon, the popular dish made its way on to the menu of Lot 1. And now, almost three years later, Chef Centeno has opened a concept entirely focused on the Bäco.
Bäco Mercat’s layout is well thought out, from the small, plant-lined patio looking out onto Fourth Street, the inviting bar that greets you when you open the glass doors and the round tables that encourage long conversations and sharing your order with your friends. It’s a neighborhood-tailored spot; just show up, there are no reservations allowed at Bäco Mercat.
Once you’re seated, take a look at the well-prepared beverage menu. The beers are hand picked and unique, like the Flying Dog Gonzo Porter from Maryland and the best pilsner I’ve tried in a while, Avery Joe’s from Colorado. But what really caught my eye were the in-house prepared Bäco sodas. The signature Bäco pop – a blend of orange, ginger and juniper – is uplifting and literally put a smile on my face. I could probably drink about two of these a day to keep the blues away.
To start the meal, I ordered honeydew melon with crème fraiche and the pickled vegetable salad. Lots of times, honeydew is not very flavorful, I usually look at it as a filler fruit in fruit salad, but Centano’s melon is not only sweet and, along with the crème fraiche, I am rethinking honeydew’s rank in fruits that I enjoy. The salad, ripe with radish, beets and tomatoes, was very tangy, but what I noticed most is the ingredients tasted extremely fresh - like they were just purchased from the farmer’s market. For me, this was a great indicator that your dining experience will be good, when you can taste the freshness of the ingredients.
Our server suggested we order two or three Bäcos each, so we had “the Original:” pork belly and beef carnitas with smoked aioli and the Spanish sauce Salbitxada, a powerful blend of garlic, tomatoes and parsley with just the perfect amount of vinegar to enhance the salty charred carnitas. Next up, the Pesco, on par with a deep-fried fish taco you find in Baja, in a very delicious way. The vegetarian Fava Bean Fritter with poblano, feta and another sauce found in Spain called Salmorejo – almost like a gazpacho – is my second favorite Bäco.
The Bäco gets even flatter and is made into a flatbread pizza called the Coca, or crispy flat bread. Simple ingredients like salsa verde, ricotta and eggs make “The Egg” a great choice to order, as well as the El Cordero with Merguez sausage, spicy harrisa (a sauce native to Africa) and creamy chevre. The Cocas are prime for sharing, but be warned: You’ll definitely be fighting over who gets the last piece.
Since Bäco Mercat is closed on Sundays, I don’t have my brunch spot but if I’m up early enough for their Saturday “hair of the dog” mornings, I will be enjoying the Bäzole. It’s a take on pozole, with house-made noodles steeped in a green chile broth, carnitas and a perfect fried egg. That, paired with a Bäco soda is a perfect start to the day.
For more information, visit bacomercat.com.