99 Essential Restaurants 2014

Bäco Mercat

photo by Anne Fishbein

To the question “If you had one meal to eat in L.A., where would you go?” we often find ourselves answering, simply, Bäco Mercat. It’s the follow-up question that proves more difficult: “Bäco Mercat … what kind of food do they serve?” The best answer might be “Centenian,” a cuisine specific to Josef Centeno, Bäco’s chef and owner. But that’s hardly helpful. Centeno is a whiz at taking international influences and turning them into something wholly his own: a little bit Spanish, a little bit Middle Eastern, a little bit Mexican, very Californian. The bäco, which could otherwise be called a Centenian sandwich, is kind of like a taco but bigger, kind of like a flatbread but thicker and chewier, and filled with beef and pork carnitas and a Catalan sauce called salbitxada made from nuts and red pepper. Centeno should win an award for his dedicated efforts to elevate vegetables: Half of Bäco’s menu is dedicated to Centenian vegetable creations, each one a quiet triumph. Japanese eggplant comes as tender as pudding, set against the cooling snap of cucumber, with creamy feta and cipollini vinaigrette for added contrast. Sunchokes are showered with tarragon, dusted with dukkah and tossed with buttered croutons. Centeno runs two other restaurants around the corner but Bäco remains the shining example of the Centenian genre, a restaurant so original it is quite unexplainable. But you don’t need to understand — just go. You won’t regret it.

-- Besha Rodell