I don’t think we’d even heard of Bäco Mercat until maybe a month ago–and that was only by way of Twitter, one or two people Tweeting it out as a suggestion. We had no idea where it was or who was behind it or what a Bäco Mercat was or even if they served food: we just heard it was good. In the course of that month or so that we heard about the place, word definitely kept spiraling around it, buzz filling up some gauge that was going to sound an alarm if we didn’t check it out. Last week, we went with LAIY/TFIB contributor and foodie Alec Rojas to try it.
To save the suspense, just about everything about this place is great.
A little backstory, which we did not know about the place until after: Bäco Mercat is the baby of Chef Josef Centeno, the man behind Lazy Ox Canteen. They serve up what we guess you could call New Spanish cuisine as it’s a mixture of classic Spanish flavors tossed around sandwiches, flatbreads, small plates, and big plates without anything feeling directly like “Spanish cuisine.” And, although we still don’t know what the name of the place means, the website notes that bäco is “the signature flatbread sandwich that was developed by chef Josef Centeno.” So, it’s a made up word? We have no idea.
Regardless, we did not then and are not now hung up on the meaning of the word. We went to the spot last Wednesday–the day it was supposed to rain but, instead, just spat out sprinkle threats every now and then–without a reservation and a concern that we were going to be turned away. Fortunately for us, we snagged a table outside and were quickly greeted by a very cool Australian waitress. She was super knowledgeable of everything and super helpful and–as you can expect–super busy. Thankfully, the service at the Mercat is so great that the hostess, busboys, and the barmen were at her aid, helping explain drinks that we were confused by (namely the Barrel Aged Cocktails). We ended up getting a bit of everything: a glass of their rosé, the Copper Fix, and the Redhook, one of the Barrel Aged Cocktails.
The rosé was your standard fair and was perfect for a muggy night: no complaints there. The Copper Fix was the Mercat’s take on the Gold Rush, which was very good and complicated thanks to the addition of some very sophisticated bitters. The Redhook was a kick in the pants in the best way possible, the dense and aged whiskey (we believe?) so refined and perfect that it could all have been consumed in one, smooth sip. Thankfully, the drink is just a few drops of booze (the pour you see above is how the drink arrives to you) at twelve dollars each that you will be dissuaded from downing one after the other for fear of bankruptcy and a sneaky and deadly drunken stupor.
Everything on the menu looked fantastic and we were unsure of what exactly to order. Of course, our excellent waitress swung in to clear up things, bulleting through each part of the menu with her favorites at a speed we could barely keep up with. Using her recommendations, what caught our eyes, and what people had Tweeted to us earlier in the day, we got a big collection of goodies: we ordered the Chicken Liver and Foie Gras Mousse, the Toron Bäco, the Chicken and Waffles, the El Cordero Flatbread, Wild Boar Sugo, the Black Rice Risotto, and The Salty Jowl Flatbread. Quite a tour of the menu, folks.
If you’ve read our reviews, you know that we are slaves to patés and mousses. When we saw their Chicken Liver and Foie Gras Mousse you can bet that we immediately demanded it without prompting. Their version was served with kumquats and bread and we knew what to expect but we also had no idea what to expect. The dish showed up in this small jar with a fat slice of bread and we just stared at it for a minute or two because it was very pretty. After that minute, it was basically dumped out, rubbed all over our bodies, and consumed because it was amazing: the soft, savory, slightly sweet mousse paired with the kumquat (which was a jam spread atop of it) made for an excellent meat spread. It was a very extremely refined version of the dish which, at many other places in town, comes out chunky and flaky and just not that good. This is one of the best mousses in town. The bread was also out of control, too, requiring us to ask for another little loaf of it.
The Toron Bäco was also excellent despite it being one of the biggest challenges in our lives to split three ways as it is a pita like sandwich. (Tip: we figured out a mathematical solution by having one person eat almost halfway into it, then you slice the rest in half. Worked for us!) This sandwich is their calling card and for good reason: it’s essentially a hamburger made out of oxtail hash served with a big potato disc, cheese, and a nicely unexpected horseradish. It’s also quite light, all things considered.
The El Cordero Flatbread–which was a recommendation from a few people–was definitely the star of the meal. It’s essentially a spicy sausage, arugula, and creamy feta pizza, everything slathered onto crisp bread that–despite its thinness–does a great job of maintaining its composure in the face of oil slicks. This was a super spicy, savory flatbread that was just fantastic. There’s nothing else to say about it. Make sure you have a glass of water on hand for it, though, as the merguez’s spice builds very nicely but to the point that you feel like your mouth is going to fall off.
The Chicken and Waffles were great and came with high recommendations from the super nice busboys who kept checking in with us as we went through our meal. It’s a very small plate, about a little more than a quarter of waffle and a little, meaty quail leg all covered in bacon gravy (!!!), and is one of the best entries in this new culinary obsession in LA. That being said, this dish–like every Chicken and Waffle we’ve had in town–is good but doesn’t have that certain je ne sais quoi that makes it perfect. When we find it, we’ll let you know. (We sense it’s at Roscoe’s, though.)
The Wild Boar Sugo was pitched to us as an “open faced Philly Cheesesteak.” I mean, duh, we had to order one. It didn’t necessarily live up to that comparison, the cheese at a very supporting role in the dish and the bread being a bit overpowering although good. It was delicious, nevertheless. The addition of the celery was a divisive item, either being a hit or a flop at the table.
The Black Rice Risotto came with the warning that it was going to be a little atypical and dense but, really, wasn’t that crazy. It also didn’t live up to the amount of squid we were anticipating, both squid ink and squid rings in the dish serving as almost an underline to flavored risotto and fried onion. It was good…just not as fantastic as previous dishes.
The Salty Jowl was our final dish and it was good. It was no El Cordero but, then again, what else can stand up to that dish? We don’t think anything else, really. We made the error of not ordering this earlier as it was a soft note to end the meal on as it comes heavy with ricotta and disallowed for us to have the strength to make it to the egg at the center of it. Next time, I suppose!
All in all, Bäco Mercat was a fantastic treat. It was one of those places so unexpected and full of hype and actually able to keep up with the hype. The space is nice, the drinks are nice, the service is nice, and the food is just the nicest. This is one place you have to check out very soon–and make sure you make a reservation, which we failed to do, resulting in our sitting outside with the threat of rain. That was the only bad part of the experience–but that wasn’t their bad: it was ours.