How do you even categorize the food at Joseph Centeno's Bäco Mercat? Are these sandwiches, gyros or tacos that we're shoving into our mouths? Are those flatbreads or pizzas coming out of the kitchen of The Lazy Ox Canteen chef's latest venture? In fact, they're bäcos and cocas, respectively, but the globe of influence behind the food is even broader and more difficult to define. While the flatbread cocas originate in Spain, their ingredients hail from as far away as Tunisia. We're touring Italy, China, France, Mediterranean and the Deep South. Peru? Why not? To eat here is to travel across multiple continents within the compass of a single bite.
While Mercat is Catalan for 'market', the concept of bäco is a far more personal invention of the Lazy Ox chef. A flatbread created by using unique fats and lebni (a strained yogurt), Centeno’s bäco is a hybrid of the world’s flatbreads. The words 'global' and 'taco' have been combined and truncated to brand the restaurant’s namesake dish.
Even though the place was virtually empty when we arrived just a few minutes after opening, it was well on its way to filling up a mere 20 minutes later. Not surprising - the recent arrival of Bäco Mercat has to be a breath of fresh air for those working downtown. We found a seat at a table for two in wood-backed chairs reminiscent of a grade-school classroom. The restaurant is painted in blue and brown hues, with exposed brick and a rustic, industrial style that comes as a pre-requisite for restaurant openings these days.
A nice first impression: a small cup of fried, crispy "Bäco chips" (continuing the theme, a cross between breadsticks and chips), and an addictive sticky, smoky, spicy sauce.
We were eager to start the meal with one of the aforementioned flatbreads. The El Cordero has a thin, crispy base blanketed with wonderful harissa-based sauce, which had some heat, and topped with flavorful bits of merguez (lamb sausage), as well as handfuls of arugula with hints of mint. Thankfully the word 'pizza' is nowhere on the menu, because this coca, with its cracker-like crust, is far from it.
Next to arrive was a gorgeously refreshing beet salad fattoush with endive, red onion, grapefruit, parsley, baby radish, burrata. In place of the traditional bread, this fattoush comes with thick leaves of endive - the perfect delivery system to insure the lightly dressed beets, cheese and flavorful accompaniments make it to your mouth.
The "Original" bäco is the real reason we're here. And it doesn't disappoint in the least. Filled with pork belly, beef carnitas, cherry tomatoes, pickled red onion, mixed greens including mint, and a flavorful salbitxada (Catalan salsa), this dish completely wins us over to the bäco concept. The highlight of the original is the crispy-on-the-outside-tender-on-the-inside carnitas.
We liked our first bäco so much we went for another. The beef tongue schnitzel bäco is loaded up with breaded, fried slices of tongue, pickles, greens and a smoked aioli. The tart sauce pairs well with unctuous, tender meat. We weren't convinced that the tongue needed schnitzeling, but it didn't hurt. Another really solid rendition of the bäco, but if you order only one? Go with the 'Original'.
Sure, we could spend all day sorting through the global influences, but the sum total feels as authentic as any individual component. Bäco Mercat is absolutely a trip around the world we'll be taking again soon.