Let the bäco-mania begin. Josef Centeno’s new restaurant, Bäco Mercat, is open for lunch. (See my article for details.)
Centeno, of course, is the mastermind behind the Lazy Ox Canteen. As I wrote before, I’ve been following his footsteps – literally – for more than two years because I live upstairs from the Lazy Ox. I watched the restaurant’s construction, sipped wine at the opening party, ate plenty of crispy pig ear dishes, and have observed throngs of people crowding the sidewalk each night while waiting for a table.
The Lazy Ox might be defined by diversity and eclecticism – so many ingredients on each plate! But at Bäco Mercat, there is one that reigns supreme – the flatbread.
A couple of days ago, I arrived for lunch early and peeked into the kitchen. Cooks were slamming huarache-shaped rounds of dough onto a hot griddle where bubbles burst forth like boiling lava. These flatbreads became the base for bäcos and cocas, two of the menu’s signature items.
The bäco – a “sandwich-taco-pizza hybrid” – has been much-celebrated for several years. (Centeno has served it at past restaurants.) But what about the coca? I believe this dish has the potential to stir a new flatbread obsession.
The coca, as an LA Times article pointed out, comes from Spain’s Catalonia region. In cities such as Barcelona, one can buy it baked with any number of toppings – possibly mushrooms, spinach, olives, anchovies, ham, bacon, tomatoes, and cheese. The crust is crispy and flaky.
The coca I tasted from Bäco Mercat came with confit tomato sauce, mozzarella, smoked jalapeno and basil. And it was delicious – the perfect mix of dry crunch and soft, savory sauce. But wait. Wasn’t it just a thin version of pizza?
I pondered my question the next day at Atwater Crossing Kitchen, where the menu features eight flatbread varieties. I tried the margherita, topped with San Marzano, tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, and basil.
What made it any different than pizza? I put my question to Jonathan Gold. We were both at Atwater Crossing, an arts complex, for a book reading hosted by Slake, the literary magazine. “A pizza is anything you bake that has toppings on it,” he told me. Oh. Quickly, my burning question was extinguished.
I suppose the only difference, then, is the name. “Coca” conjures images of Spain – romance and adventure, castanets and Don Quixote – while “pizza” might make you think of 4th grade birthday parties. “Flatbread” sounds like culinary innovation – “pizza” is old news. Chefs want special, unique words to highlight the creative qualities of their food. And in Centeno’s case, ”coca” indicates the particular history and culture of Catalonia, and a very specific kind of pizza. One that’s prepared differently than a classic Italian pie.
What makes a bäco different than a sandwich, then? I can already guess Jonathan’s answer to that. As he wrote in a review of the Lazy Ox Canteen: “The umlaut, dude, the umlaut.”
Read my LA Weekly article about the Bäco Mercat opening here.