Two things are making me more of a restaurant adventurer here in L.A. than I was in New York: (1) nicer weather and (2) a car. In New York, on the bitterest, most miserable days of January, I would stick to a very specific loop that involved lunch at Hummus Place, coffee at Joe, and a slushy trek home. Here in L.A., it’s just a matter of unlocking my car door, rolling down the windows, cranking up the Original Cast Recording of “Next To Normal” and hitting the road.
Our first destination, on this sunny winter day, is another stop downtown. Last we were there, it was for The Spice Table; this time, we’re hitting up a place with an umlat: Bäco Mercat.
Warning: unlike The Spice Table, Bäco Mercat didn’t seem to have validated parking anywhere. So I ended up paying $9 ($3 every 20 minutes) for a lot down the street.
That said, the place is warm and sunny inside:
Our waitress, who was positively giddy with enthusiasm, suggested we try the signature sodas. Diana tried a bottled soda called POP! with ginger, orange and juniper flavors:
And I tried one made with purple corn:
The flavors were nice, if a bit too subtle. I much preferred the purple corn drink I had at Mo-Chica.
These fried chips were placed before us while we sipped our syrupy sodas:
I’m pretty sure these are made with the leftover dough from the flatbread used in Bäco Mercat’s signature sandwich. That’s no criticism: they’re crusty, salty and a great scoop for that dark brown sauce that must have been tasty, but wasn’t very memorable–I can’t tell you anything about it.
But I can tell you about the Brussels Sprout Caesar we started with:
It’s a lovely presentation in a big white, square bowl. I was thinking raw Brussels sprouts shaved and tossed with an anchovy-infused garlic dressing. Not so. These were warm Brussels sprouts and the dressing, while good, was wimpier than the Caesar salads I know and love. Still, it was a well-made starter—I especially like the color from the radishes and pickled red onions.
Let’s be honest, you don’t go to Bäco Mercat for the salads, the snacks or the sodas. You go for the sandwiches. According to the website, this sandwich–called a bäco–was developed by chef Josef Centeno. The original bäco, which we ordered, is stuffed with crispy pork belly, beef carnitas and caraway pepper (that’s what you see in the lead photo, but here’s another shot):
As you can see, the bread is almost pita-like in its appearance. But in terms of taste and texture, it’s lighter, more pillowy. Pita doesn’t fold the way that this bread folds; and this bread gets crispy around the edges, giving it a little crunch when you take your first bite.
Needless to say, with the pork belly, the beef, the arugula and pickled red onions, this sandwich was built for success. It’s their signature sandwich for a reason and it’s very much worth eating–or very much worth sharing. At 12:30 PM, eating this sandwich is akin to a death sentence. The rest of your day will probably be shot.
Which is why we ordered a “lighter” sandwich for our second sandwich, “El Pesco” with crispy shrimp, Sriracha, and chives:
Let’s not kid ourselves–with the fried shrimp and mayo-filled slaw on top, there’s nothing light about this sandwich. But who cares? Don’t visit Bäco Mercat if you’re looking for a light lunch. As far as heavy lunches go, this sandwich was, again, top notch. Crispy, crunchy, salty, spicy and slightly acidic, I ate this way faster than I should have. And I’m not apologizing for it.
So Bäco Mercat is there for you to indulge yourself at lunchtime.
But we have a car and it’s nice out, so let’s talk about dinner! Do you remember my interview with Penny de Los Santos? When she heard I was moving to L.A. she said, “You have to eat at La Casita Mexicana…it’s the best.”
I made a mental note and, at various points since I moved here in September, made a plan to go there. But that plan would always fizzle when I’d look at a map and calculate how long it would take to get there. It’s in an area called Bell which isn’t terribly far from me, but because of highway traffic and other unpleasantness that we deal with here in L.A., it was always hard to justify in the middle of the day.
But this is dinner! Let’s join Mark and Diana and Craig for a trip to Bell. Cue the car, cue the music, cue the G.P.S.
And here we are:
It’s not very hard to find, once you exit the highway. And there’s parking right out front (for free!). Here’s a look inside:
As you can see, this place has lots of character. Let’s zoom in on this piece of art to prove it:
And this wall, with sculptures of fruit:
At our table, we were immediately presented with chips and two kinds of sauce on top–a mole and a tomatilla salsa:
Tasty! I think chips with mole on top is a good piece of evidence that you’re in a really good Mexican restaurant; Guelaguetza did the same thing.
While everyone else drank beer (lushes!), I ordered myself a horchata–which was just sweet enough and fragrant with cinnamon:
Our waiter, who could only be described as a character, steered us through the menu with thoughtfulness and charm. When I told him I was here because a friend said it was the best Mexican restaurant in L.A., he shrugged and said, “The best? No. Maybe in the top three.”
He recommended the ceviche, which we all shared as a starter; it was a vivid green from a tomatillo salsa that made everything peppy and bright:
Here’s Craig showing off his chip with ceviche on it:
When I asked for more “chips” later, the waiter corrected me. “You mean you want more tostadas?” “Yes,” I said, a note of apology in my voice.
Here are Mark and Diana enjoying theirs:
And here’s a carrot soup that everyone received, complimentary, from the kitchen:
The gesture was so unexpected and so lovely, it’s hard to be critical of the soup which was mellow, and mostly smooth, with a few chunks of carrot here and there.
For my entree, I took our waiter’s advice and ordered Casita’s signature dish–Chile En Nogada:
That’s a large chile filled, according to the menu, with meat, dried fruits, walnuts and candied cactus, coated in a pecan cream sauce and sprinkled, at the end, with pomegranate seeds.
How to describe this? My first thought, upon tasting it, was “mincemeat.” It had that feel of a Christmas pastry that combines ground beef and dried fruit. But the more I ate it, the more I appreciated the heat of the chile and the cooling, creaminess of the pecan sauce. I can’t say that this was a dish I’d want to eat again and again, but it was a dish that I enjoyed for its whimsy and its originality.
Diana and Craig both got enchiladas with three moles:
They both scarfed them up so quickly, I barely got to try a bite. Craig raved over his, Diana let out an “mmm” or two.
Mark had the dish I’d been eyeing before I chose that chile…the braised pork with habanero salsa:
I tried a bit of his and, indeed, that’s a winner.
For dessert, we all shared churros that were–get this–STUFFED with Mexican caramel (made with goat’s milk):
Oh wow, these were so wrong and yet so right. You don’t need me to use fancy food descriptions here; you know that these tasted good. Just trust me on that.
So, yes, we loved La Casita Mexicana, but our story’s not over. When you pay your check at La Casita, they give you a 10% off coupon for La Tiendita Mexiana next door:
It was there that I found some Mexican hot chocolate which I bought to make at home. There was also this wall of crosses:
And these paintings:
And this sculpture:
And these food things that I didn’t buy, but considered:
(Actually, the hot chocolate that I bought is on the bottom left of that bottom picture.)
See how having a car can improve one’s capacity for adventure? Who knows where these wheels will take me next? I know it’ll be somewhere good, though, if my belly continues to do the steering.