Flamboyant flavors and eclectic expressions
Claim to fame: Casual yet clever since 2011
Reason to go: Flavors from far-flung places, reinvented in Esperanto-esque ways
To look out for: The generous happy hour, served at the bar and on the patio
The security blanket of innovative dining. Is that even a thing? It sounds like a yawn and a contradiction, yet Bäco Mercat is exactly that; an eatery that has a sneaky way of enveloping us in the fuzzy warmth of familiarity while simultaneously entertaining our taste buds with surprising creativity and flamboyant flavor-profiles. It’s a neighborhood place that offers remarkably relevant dishes, but does so without grand gestures, an unfussy dining room with rather lousy acoustics that attracts a laid-back crowd. Also, it’s been around for a while, so it’s got a certain Snuggy-informal allure.
Chef/Owner Josef Centeno, a James Beard Award nominee and former Chef de Cuisine at fine dining heavy-hitter Manresa, has found a way to balance the approachable with the exciting, sprinkling everything with unexpected aromas plucked from Asia, Europe and all around the Mediterranean. His menu––possibly designed by Napoleon Dynamite on a short break after 4th period science class––is dotted with elegant touches such as truffles, foie gras torchon and hamachi crudo, it’s also packed with vegetable dishes, all with very distinct and pronounced flavors and textures. Moreish salted cucumber and avocado salad is elevated with dukkah-spiked marcona almonds and gets its velvety, umami expressions from miso and aged cheddar; blistered okra is swathed in a fenugreek- and sesame-laced, spunky-tart tomato sauce. Centeno is not afraid of acidity.
Flatbreads, aka pizza, aka the emotional support animal of foods, are ingeniously topped: burrata, chile, cardamom and spinach; squash blossom nettles, mozzarella and earthy pine nuts; or, for those in real need of a pat on the back, fried egg, pork belly and snappy salmorejo. Likewise, there is comfort to be had in the menu’s meat and fish section; a Jurassic-sized roasted bone marrow is presented on a bed of squid ink gnocchetti, upon our visit, a tad manhandled, as if kneaded too long, they’re nevertheless expertly seasoned with zippy gooseberry zhoug, chopped walnuts and bacon breadcrumbs. Fiery mussels are steamed with Sriracha, not the unfortunate trailer-park cousin of hot sauces, but a house made version thereof, its heat beautifully balanced with white wine, mint and feta for creamy saltiness.
The signature Bäco (a homemade abbreviation of global taco) sandwich is a flatbread-taco hybrid, a messy fiesta stuffed with lobster, fava fritters, oxtail hash and other not-to-be-missed fillings. Large format plates include a whole branzino, berbere pork shoulder and a full rack of lamb, each with its own quirky-delicious accouterments. The beverage program features several natural wines and unusual labels, a smattering of hip cocktails and craft beers, as well as a thoughtful selection of non-alcoholic offerings in the form of inventive house made soda pop and shrubs.