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Entries in Market (7)

Friday
Jan272012

Bäco Mercat

*Post by Mark.

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.

Bäco Mercat on Urbanspoon

Tuesday
Sep202011

A Tale of Two Bay Cities - Obtaining Santa Monica's Preeminent Sandwich

*Post by Mark.

Ever since I moved to Los Angeles, every conversation about sandwiches has always taken a turn towards Bay Cities. The gourmet market has been serving Santa Monica since 1925, and its sandwiches, with an extensive array of Italian meats and cheeses, may very well be the closest thing to a bustling New York deli you'll find in LA. After much procrastination, we finally made it into Bay Cities on a recent weekend to grab some pre-hike sandwiches.

Yet, we discovered, there are two different ways to approach Bay Cities with dramatically differing outcomes. The experience of ordering online can be a pleasant one, whereas a spontaneous visit can prove a stressful free-for-all, and it wouldn't be fair to consider the deli without taking both experiences into account. 

 

 

Let's file our first Bay Cities experience into the lesson learned category - a harrowing, nightmarish adventure filled with folly. Consider this a cautionary tale. Our first mistake was going around lunchtime on a Saturday morning. Cars were lined up in the street, backing up traffic, just to wait for a spot in the parking lot. But the experience wasn't all about our mistakes. Before we even made it through the front doors a security guard welcomed us by screaming about not taking pictures inside. 

We acquiesced to the apparent no-pictures-inside policy, but soon discovered it wouldn't have mattered anyway. Inside, we were pulled into an elbow-to-elbow maelstrom of disorganized chaos. Along the right side of the store, the long deli counter and the crowd surrounding resembled a war zone. People fought their way to grab pre-made sandwiches like Bay Cities' signature Godmother sandwich. Everyone else grabbed a ticket and fought to hold their position near the counter. I've seen tamer crowds in the pits of a Rage Against the Machine concert.

 

 

When our number was eventually called, Angela took care of the ordering while I ventured away to scavenge for some side dishes in the market section of Bay Cities, which was not much better than the deli counter. Narrow, packed aisles meant people stepping on your toes, hands reaching over top of you with blatant disregard for humanity. It was like The Road Warrior and obtaining a plastic tub of potato salad was a kill-or-be-killed conquest.

 

 

Meanwhile Angela was having troubles of her own. A moment's pause while ordering sandwiches?  Well that gets you yelled at, too. Twenty minutes later, sandwiches in hand we stepped into another long line to pay. With all the pre-made Godmother sandwiches, we could've saved ourselves a lot of trouble, Angela noted, if only she hadn't wanted her Godmother without onions. Nevertheless, we paid for our sandwiches and left, attempting to wash our hands of the last forty-five harrowing minutes whilst also trying to return our blood pressures to normal levels.

 

 

We waited until we were settled at a picnic table in Temescal Gateway Park before unwrapping our hard-won prizes. I had opted for a simple sandwich with proscuitto and hefty chunks of fresh mozzarella (above). The bread, although not as fresh as I would have liked, was excellent - crusty, chewy and flavorful.

 

 

Angela, still shaken from the whole process, managed to enjoy her Godmother (above) for a full 30 seconds before realizing that, despite her specific request, her sandwich contained onions. All of that waiting and shot-nerves was for nothing. She chould've just walked in and grabbed a pre-made sandwich after all. Once she had the chance to rant, cool down and pick the onions off, she begrudingly conceded that the both the bread and ingredients (Genoa salami, mortadella, cappicala, ham, proscuitto, and provolone) were top notch.

 

 

The sides I managed to grab, cole slaw and potato salad (above), didn't really register one way or another. But these little Peruvian cookies we nabbed (below) gave us a nice sweet ending to our picnic meal.

 

 

Where Bay Cities is truly king is their extensive selection of fresh ingredients. But, if you're willing to accept more limited ingredient offerings, we'd recommend All About the Bread, where the bread is always fresh out of the oven and the counter-staff actually remembers your name instead of yelling at you. Of course Michael Voltaggio's ink.sack and Westwood's Fundamental are leading the wave of a new gourmet sandwich shops in town providing reasonable alternatives. 

 

 

But it would be purely sour grapes for us to suggest that Bay Cities isn't responsible for some of the best sandwiches in LA. Order ahead and you'll likely agree. When you order online you'll find your sandwiches waiting for you on a rack in a much tamer side of the market. But if you stumble upon Bay Cities during peak hours without planning ahead, I suggest following the immortal advice of The Road Warrior's villianous Lord Humungous, "Just walk away."

Bay Cities Italian Deli & Bakery on Urbanspoon

Monday
Jan312011

Food + Lab

*Post by Mark.

The simple signage (below) out front of the Santa Monica Boulevard storefront says it all. Food Lab brands their store with the international symbols for 'Heart', 'Food' and 'Happy'. Does the heart stand for love or heart-healthy? A strong case could be made either way. If it's not the collection of quality ingredients served inside that keeps me coming back, it's the superior service and branded smiles on the baristas and servers who man the register and deliver your lunch.

 

 

Breakfast, sandwiches and salads can be spruced up with a supplemental selection from a case full of fresh sides (below, left). Those browsing the case will also discover an assortment of winning takeaways, like housemade speck, Boccalone salami and Dean & Deluca sauces.

Diners sip on coffee or house-made juices while eating pastries out front or in the larger seating area out back (below, right), where the only thing that disrupts the tranquil afternoon is the occasional rumbling engine from the Thunder Road Motorcycle Shop next door. 

 

 

Coffee drinks come in big ol' bowls (below). The portion is appreciated, though a handle would be a nice gesture to keep me from slurping and dribbling my latte down my chin. In spite of how much may or may not make it into my mouth, it's some of the better coffee in town.

 

 

The organic European-style yogurt with berries (below, right) is one of the lighter options on the breakfast menu. During the weekends, you can also fill up on organic egg dishes like the smoked salmon and creme fraiche omelette. 

 

 

The breakfast menu also hosts a collection of sandwiches. The hard-boiled egg sandwich (below) is served on wheat bread and loaded with juicy ingredients like farm raised bacon, watercress & aioli. Sandwiches are served a la carte and range from $7-$12. The price is usually justified by the quality of ingredients, as you'll find stuff like fresh figs or lingonberry chutney on your sandwich.


 

Salads are no different, ranging from $9.50-13. Food + Lab's plates of greens are loaded with impressive toppings. The crispy prosciutto & fig salad is served with halloumi, candied pecans, balsamic and apricot over a bed of arugula. 

 

 

For lunch, you'll find an entirely new assortment of sandwiches. I enjoyed the chicken salad and Cuban-tyle sandwiches, respectively. The delicious organic turkey breast (below) is served on wheat with brie, pear, honey and fig compote. Balancing out the perk of the extensive menu is that Food + Lab tends to run out of some of those quality ingredients with regularity.  

 

 

Having already catered and cooked for celebs like Gwen Stefani and David Beckham, the mother and son team of Esther and Nino Linsmayer has turned their catering business into a collection of storefront Food + Lab markets around town. Come for lunch or just for coffee, Food + Lab is a great place to meet friends, get some work done or just waste a couple hours on a warm spring afternoon. For those wanting to finish their meal with dessert, the Lab also carries ice cream sandwiches from @Coolhaus and delicious cookies from @DeLuscious to sate your sweet tooth.

 

Food + Lab Cafe & Marketplace on Urbanspoon

Wednesday
Jan122011

Porto's Bakery & Cafe

*Post by Angela.

Last month, before all the crazy holiday stuff really started up, Mark and I got to spend the day with V, one of my oldest friends (we've known each other since I was about three). V treated us to a wonderful holiday afternoon performance by the Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles at the Alex Theatre in Glendale. We got there a couple of hours early to check out Porto's Bakery & Cafe, a staple of Los Angeles dining founded by the Cuban Porto family.

 

 

Despite the dreariness of the weather outside, the cafeteria-style bakery was absolutely slammed with people, and V mentioned that it is pretty much always like that.

 

 

As we waited in the chaos that was the "line," Mark's eyes were glued to the sweets on display. No wonder - Porto's originally took off on the strength of matriarch Rosa Porto's baking skills.

 

 

We were suddenly shoved unceremoniously to the front of the line, and, caught off guard, our ordering became a little frentic. In fact, I'm pretty sure our order got a bit mixed up with the person ordering next to us, because instead of the medianoche sandwich we ordered to split, the pan con lechon sandwich, with slow roasted pork, mojo garlic sauce, and grilled onions, on grilled Cuban bread and served with crispy plantain chips (below) arrived at our table. It looked really good, so we just tore into it. And it tasted as good as it looked. The flaky and crusty bread was a great vehicle for the wonderfully tender and flavorful pork.

 

 

We also ordered a number of the yummy meat pies, including the ground beef and pickle, the chicken pie...

 

 

and the chorizo pie. All were equally tasty, flaky little accompaniments to the sandwich's shining star, and I'm hard pressed to say I liked one more than the others, although the chorizo pie's slight spiciness may have given it an edge.

 

 

Another victim of our frenzied ordering was Mark's dessert. I'm not sure what this was, but it was not what Mark ordered. Nevertheless, it was pretty good, though a little rich for my liking. I'd like to come back and try some of the other endless pastry offerings displayed.

 

 

The food was pretty darned solid, and the best part? I'm pretty sure our check came in close to $10. I can absolutely see why the bakery was packed with families on a rainy Saturday afternoon, and has been successful enough to support two additional locations in Burbank and Downey - it's hard to pass up such cheap, filling, tasty food. While the line and service are a slight deterrent, next time I'm in Glendale, I may just stop in again, if only to try Porto's infamous potato balls.

 

Porto's Bakery (Glendale) on Urbanspoon Porto's Bakery & Cafe (Burbank) on Urbanspoon

Porto's Bakery in Los Angeles on Fooddigger

Tuesday
Nov232010

Cube 

*Post by Angela.

On Saturday, we were in the throes of preparing for our annual pre-Thanksgiving, Thanksgiving dinner, something I do every year on the Sunday before Thansgiving so that I can celebrate Thansgiving with all of my friends before they go home for the actual holiday. Having started preparing for the big meal two days prior, I was in no mood to cook anything that wasn't going on the pre-Thanksgiving table, so we took the opportunity to check out Cube on La Brea, a small cafe, cheese bar, and market I pass every day on my way to work. 

 

 

We had heard great things about Cube, which took over the space formerly occupied by the Divine Pasta Company (both owned by Alexander Palermo), and remnants of the old business can be found in the house-made pasta offered for sale on shelves in the corners of the cafe. The center of the eatery, which is decked out in fall-appropriate harvest colors and decor, houses a long bar, behind which an industrious chef prepares cheeses and charcuterie.

 

 

Our friendly, very laid-back server started our meal out on a very good note with a basket of fresh-out-of-the-oven bread, which was baked to flaky perfection.

 

 

While we wanted to order every single thing on the menu, our first dish was an attempt at ordering at least one thing that wouldn't have us sleeping off a food coma with an afternoon nap: the shaved brussels sprouts (enunciated by two exclamation points on the menu) tossed together in a wonderful seasonal mixture of ingredients for a light, unique and tasty result. Joining the shaved sprouts were satsuma, pomegranate, toasted hazelnuts, shaved pecorino, and a hazelnut vinaigrette (below).

 

 

We also shared an order of the maple braised bacon. For every light, healthy and restrained bite of the brussels sprouts we had, there was a heavy, rich and savory bite of the bacon (below) eager to balance it out. The lush, dreamy maple syrup sauce was so perfect over the thick slab of bacon, creamy polenta and melt-in-your-mouth cipollini onions we were soon bathing everything else on the table in it. And the bacon was cut so tender, gorgeously marbled, and glorious, I'm surprised the menu describes it as bacon and not pork belly. 

 

 

For my entree, the butternut squash & duck sausage lasagna (below) called out to me and would not be ignored. The dish was about as light as you can imagine any lasagna being, with delicate layers of paper-thin pasta sheets enfolding savory nuggets of sausage and bits of slightly sweet squash. I was massively impressed with this beautiful and elegant dish. 

 

 

Just like with our appetizers, we couldn't let ourselves get away with two light dishes and the house's truffle burger (below) seemed like just the perfect plate to restore order to our meal. The burger - served medium rare on house brioche with charred shallot and a slice of Gruyere, as well as a meaty slice of heirloom tomato and a handful of arugula - lived up to most expectations, but sentiment at the table settled on the side of being slightly overpriced at $18.

Modest portion-size and lack of any discernible truffle flavor kept respective enthusiasms in check, and I sort of felt like the bun was too dense for my tastes, though Mark didn't agree. However, the meat itself had a nice texture and was very flavorful and juicy. The accompanying crispy potatoes - essentially super thin-cut french fries - were a pleasant surprise, especially when dipped into a smoky side of chipotle ketchup. Price tag aside, Cube's truffle burger is a pretty worthy entry to the growing field of notable gourmet burgers in Los Angeles. 

 

 

Somewhere and somehow we found room for dessert (this was, after all, only supposed to be a light lunch). The warm Hachiya persimmons bread pudding (below) sounded like a nice change of pace. We were both happy to savor the warm bread pudding, which had an almost burnt (in the good kind of way) flavor, and was topped with house-made peanut brittle and soaked in orange blossom caramel and accompanied by a dollop of fresh whipped cream.

 

 

This cozy little cafe serves exceptional food, so carefully executed and season-appropriate. Mark and I actually discussed how it's the perfect place to bring visiting parents or guests.  Odds are that we will be returning to Cube for dinner at some point in the near future to try all the dishes we passed up the first time.

Cube Cafe on Urbanspoon

Cube at Divine Pasta Co in Los Angeles on Fooddigger