What started as a happy-hour snack has grown into one of the hottest, most relevant restaurants in town. Chef Josef Centeno's first solo venture captures not only the zeitgeist of Downtown's white-hot dining but also the incredible multiculti spirit of Los Angeles at large. Located in the Old Banking District, just around the corner from Skid Row and some of Downtown’s brightest emerging art galleries, the always-bustling restaurant is particularly jammed on Art Walk Thursday nights. But that’s also one of the best times to go. Housed in a historic building with vintage-looking tables and chairs, the quasi-industrial restaurant manages to look and feel as if it’s been around forever; when in reality, it opened in 2011.
That original snack is the "bäco," an unlikely hybrid that is equal parts Mediterranean flatbread, Mexican taco and sheer, mad genius. If that sounds even remotely like some weird fusion cuisine, think again. Fusion is what happens when cuisines collide. For Centeno, this is just a reflection of the way he interacts with the world around him. Reading the menu, one gets the sense that Centeno has a hard time shutting off his creativity. This is clearly not a guy who meditates. The ever-changing menu offers more than 65 items at any given time. The bäco is now available in seven or eight iterations, including the original: a soft, pillowy flatbread stuffed with Centeno's unique take on carnitas (normally just pork, his includes beef) along with fresh herbs, baby greens and a Mediterranean tomato spread. He spikes the crust of killer fried chicken with aromatic Moroccan spices. He takes beef sirloin and dusts it with coffee grounds, slices it raw for carpaccio, then pairs it with a Japanese-inspired chimichurri made with shishito peppers; underneath the raw beef, you might find a lump or two of pork-fat-fried potatoes. Ravioli might be stuffed with beef tongue, while chicken livers might get a Jamaican jerk-inspired treatment. There might not be another restaurant in town that can match Baco’s assortment and brilliance with vegetables: blistered okra with tomatoes and basil, snap peas paired with grapefruit and burrata, charred lettuce with feta and watermelon, sautéed peaches with chevre and honey…
The lunch menu is limited to bäco sandwiches and little pizza-like flatbreads, plus a well-edited handful of other items to share. But come dinnertime, the kitchen goes Beautiful Mind.
Drink this: The cocktails are excellent, especially the Dirty Pimms, made with gin, cumin, cilantro and chile. The restaurant also bottles its own soda pop, reminiscent of Mexico’s Juaritos.
Eat this: The hot "bäzole." Imagine a marriage between Mexican pozole and Japanese ramen, with a fried egg on top.
Sit here: A few bar seats are usually available for anyone who foolishly forgot to make a reservation.
Conversation piece: Chef/owner Josef Centeno was the original chef at Little Tokyo's Lazy Ox Canteen, and he'll soon be opening Bar Ama, also Downtown.