In last month’s issue of Bon Appetit, they touted L.A.’s Baco Mercat as number nine of the top 10 new restaurants in America. So, when I was in Downtown L.A. last Thursday, I had to see if the hype was true. Let’s just say aside from my long anticipated dinner at Animal, it was the best meal I had in all of California.
First, the space. One nice thing about any place that’s not New York City is the size, and while Baco Mercat could have easily fit into Brooklyn’s homey, non-fine dining vibe, it proved unique for L.A. The approach chef and owner Josef Centeno took to opening up the joint tipped the hat to the whole do-it-yourself movement that has surrounded the current Brooklyn dining scene. Here, Centeno converted an office building into his restaurant, designed the space, and did his own restoration work to the furniture. With 20-foot-tall windows and amber wood paneling, the room is comfortable and rustic, but also refined enough to make a date night feel elegant or a business lunch just fancy enough.
Where the décor won us over, the Spanish and Mediterranean inspired menu triumphed. The pork and beef carnitas on their original baco sandwich melted in my mouth, and the soft, pita-like bread (but oh so much better) had the perfect chew. The whole thing was slathered in a slightly spicy salbitxada, a Spanish sauce made of chilies, garlic, tomatoes, and almonds. We were equally impressed by the buttermilk-fried jidori chicken livers, which came with sweet grapes to help cut the richness of the offal. When the pale tomato and cheese coca, or crispy flatbread, came out, it looked cheap and boring, but looks aren’t everything. Instead of having a dull taste, smoked jalapeño gave the dish a nice bite that sang harmoniously with the confit tomato sauce. Another winner we found took the form of their cold salad, which wasn’t a salad at all. Instead, it was a hearty pile of chilled, house-made noodle chock full of beef and pork chunks, a spicy sauce, mint, and crowned with a fried egg.
We also tried Baco Mercat’s vinegar based sweet and sour sodas and were pleasingly in love with the bright blood orange version. If there had been more time, I would gladly have sampled the black mint or cara cara drink options, too. As it was, that was our last stop in L.A. and the final meal we had before the airport. Luckily for us, we packed the cold salad to go for an extra special nibble on the plane back. But, if we hadn’t been leaving, Baco Mercat is a place where I could have eaten every meal; hence, the glossy food magazine is right, they are completely worthy of all accolades.