The last week of June I spent in California, travelling from LA to San Diego for work, and then staying the weekend in San Diego for vacation. Here’s a look back at some of my eating adventures from that trip.
For my first evening’s California dinner, my sister/LA resident recommended Bäco Mercat, listed by Alan Richman as one of the top twelve restaurants in the LA as well as getting recognized by Bon Appetit and Los Angeles Magazine and LA Weekly. Just a block away was Bar Amá. Both of these restaurants are only a block away from each other downtown in LA, both owned by Josef Centeno. Both celebrate bold flavor.
Instead of choosing just one, we decided to visit both. A progressive dinner! One thing I should note is that this area is just a few blocks away from Skid Row, so you may want to exercise some caution on what streets you travel through if you visit for dinner. Suddenly you may turn down a street and just see people standing around, a mix the sadness of homeless and abused and the menace of mentally unstable and pushers, as garbage piles on the street and perhaps blows across before your car like you stepped into a modern post-apocalypse part of town. Yet, Bäco Mercat and Bar Amá are part of the Old Bank District, where I saw grand old bank buildings, a Mercedes park at a meter, and across the street bright lights twinkled from a cupcake storefront (Big Man Bakes).
First, after cheering for the Blackhawks at cool but weird dive bar Bar 107, we then headed to our 7:45pm reservation. For first dinner at Bäco Mercat, we started out selecting from their menu of sandwiches (baco, a sandwich made with flatbread that for me was reminded me of shawarma), their homemade bazole soup, and a few small plates. Unfortunately the lighting wasn’t great with my point and shoot, but here is what we had at this bar of small plates that celebrates fusion flavors from Mexico, Spain and the Mediterranean. Inside, the atmosphere mixes metal punctuated with yellow tinged lighting and the blue of their napkins and butcher paper on the table for an industrial urban feel.
We kicked off with the “caesar” brussels sprouts with pecorino, anchovy, garlic. Another dish was the tasty Bacon-Wrapped Half Hen with cucumber, kumquat, quinoa. The brussels sprouts were decent but seemed overdressed in this case- I preferred the ones I will be showing you in the next post from M.B. Post. On the other hand, I did like the hen with its mix of savory bacon and chicken with the brightness of the cucumber and kumquat and the toothsome texture of the quinoa. And, it was a magnificent looking plate.
Then was the arrival of the signature baco sandwiches. I shared the Baco Sandwich Original with pork, beef carnitas, and salbitxada, and also got a taste of the Beef Tongue Schnitzel baco with harissa, smoked aioli, pickle. The chunks of pork belly were generous in the Baco Original, and I found myself sometimes picking out a piece to eat on its own. This is a pretty messy sandwich to eat, and you will be wiping that salbitxada sauce (pronounced salbi-tch-ada, a mix of tomato, vinegar, olive oil, chilis, garlic, parsley, and almond to make a kind of pesto) from your face and trying to tuck the ends of that arugula into your mouth. I liked the tender yet crispy beef tongue schnitzel, though I am unsure if I could handle a whole sandwich of it. I was too engrossed in my own dinner party companions, but I wonder how the beautiful people around me managed to still look good while eating this sandwich…
I felt that the star of this first dinner however was not the baco that Josef invented, but the the not photogenic but complete fireworks of flavor in your mouth Bazole soup with housemade noodle, pork chili broth, pork and beef, carnitas, mushroom, and fried egg. Holy moly. It almost got to be too much and I needed something to calm my mouth down because there was so much going on.
Our next stop, for second dinner, was Bar Amá. This restaurant doesn’t take reservations unlike Baco, and the viewpoint here is Josef Centeno’s homage to his grandmother and hometown San Antonio Tex-Mex nostalgia. The atmosphere here at Bar Amá was hip but more relaxed then the trendy buzz in the atmosphere from Bäco Mercat. Honestly, I liked my experience at Bar Amá better.
The rich delicious Tex Mex Queso, with chorizo added was so good I wish I could have poured it over rice and eaten it with a spoon, I will never be able to eat regular nacho cheese again without thinking upon this queso. What Bar Amá offers is that recognizable cheesy liquid gold, but celebrated in all its glory. We threw in another vegetable for our dinner here with the cauliflower and cilantro pesto with cashew and pine nuts and lime, but that kind of pesto brightened up with lime could go on any vegetable and honestly the size of the cauliflower here was a little big- everyone was cutting theirs down.
What blew us all away and stretched the waists of our pants was the stunning chicken fried steak. We were taken aback by the size and moist tender meat and the size of this chicken fried ribeye steak with cream of wheat and fried egg. The crispy outside was just like eating the best extra crispy fried chicken skin, but inside was that juicy meat, and then you break that egg and have the yolk running outside and mixing with that cream of wheat as a soft sauce… Look at this impressive and wonderful thing. Be prepared to share. Thanks for the recommendation J!