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Lazy Ox Canteen: Where's bäco? 

Finding your bliss in Josef Centeno’s ambitious new downtown bistro

Thursday, Jan 21 2010
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View more photos in Anne Fishbein's "Lazy Ox Canteen" photo gallery.

If you are a man who enjoys a little Black Sabbath with his dinner, the new Lazy Ox Canteen may be just the place for you: a new downtown restaurant where dinner starts with "Paranoid'' and ends with "Iron Man,'' and includes a solid quorum of '70s stoner classics in between — the soundtrack of a certain breed of male-oriented kitchen but one that rarely leaks out into the dining room, where you are still probably used to hearing the greatest hits of Sade. The Lazy Ox has an open kitchen, $1,000 worth of Le Creuset arranged on a high shelf, dudes whanging pans with the bored precision of an industrial-metal band on the 73rd show of a 90-date tour, which means that if they want to listen to Sabbath, you're going to listen to it, too.

The bistro is the invention of Josef Centeno, a young Texas-born chef who has blown through a lot of L.A. restaurants in a short career. Even those of us who didn't much care for his oddball tapas at Meson G loved the brilliant but doomed pan-cultural menus at Opus and the updated coffeeshop cooking at Lot One. Centeno has all the prerequisites for kitchen stardom — a sweet smile, a working command of Mediterranean, izakaya Japanese and several Latin-American cuisines, and a signature snack, the bäco, which is something like a cross between a flatbread and a taco. What does a bäco have in common with Motörhead? The umlaut, dude, the umlaut.

Lazy Ox occupies a long, narrow dining room jammed into the ground floor of a new Little Tokyo condo complex, fashionably unmarked on the outside, unless you count the tables full of dudes drinking Japanese microbrews, and is as dark as Proust's cork-lined room once you finally find the door. There are many, many tables for two, some of them jammed together to create rickety banquet tables, and huge chalkboard menus, listing 20 to 30 dishes or more, posted at each end of the dining room.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ANNE FISHBEIN - Chef Josef Centeno, dreaming of the endless tasting menu

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The wine list is strong on rustic, lesser-known wines from Spain, Italy and Chile, many of them coming in at less than $30; the roster of beer is an ale freak's dream. If you want bäco, which are available only a couple days a week, your job is to find them on the board, and then hope that they haven't yet sold out. And you will hunt for the elusive bäco, which may or may not include beef, crunchy pork belly, scallions and something like a Catalan romesco sauce. It's a scavenger hunt, the Where's Waldo of Los Angeles food.

If you visited Opus during Centeno's last months, you are familiar with his dream of the endless tasting menu; the bar that camouflages a fine restaurant; the kitchen that turns out small, fascinating courses until you beg it to stop. Where most chefs are content to put a braised meat or two on the menu, even at this time of year, Centeno's selection is practically encyclopedic: braised lamb cheeks, and braised pork neck, and braised veal tongue with candied green tomatoes. Spoonably soft braised paleron, a thick cut of beef shoulder also known as the flatiron, is nestled onto a gently salted bed of cream of wheat with bittersweet slices of kumquat.

A lot of people are doing the nose-to-tail thing at the moment, but the take here is a bit left of center, not just the expected chicken liver or oxtail but pork rillettes studded with lardons of fried pork belly; chewy, puffy chicharrones of fried pig's ear; and crepinettes of pigs' trotters wrapped in a transparent caul and grilled — it's the bistro thing. The restaurant's best dish may be the deep-flavored purée of pasilla chiles peppered with a handful of crunchy pork rinds, which melt into and enrich the soup.

Other chefs could probably spin four or five restaurants from the controlled chaos of Lazy Ox — a new-wave cantina, a modern bistro, a Japanese-influenced pub, a tapas bar — and occasionally it seems as if Centeno should edit his menu a bit more tightly. His Caesarlike romaine salad probably doesn't need both pine nuts and clumpy fried green tomatoes for its effect; and the brick-roasted mussels could do with perhaps one fewer sauce. I appreciate the idea of merguez sausage juxtaposed with licorice-braised pears, but the spicing is a little busy. And if you're dining with a big group of people — Lazy Ox is fun with a big group of people — the ewww factor can be a bit overwhelming: Charred octopus with lima beans or steamed whelks will never be as popular as cheeseburgers.

In a meal with seven or eight shared tastes, there will probably be one you won't like. Still, Centeno's vigorous, imaginative and not-quite-polished cooking is the sort of thing you want to dive into: Flavors from a dozen food cultures ramming into and across and through each other, until a culinary Higgs particle either comes into being or it doesn't. Is that Foghat blasting from the speakers? Are the tangerine-garnished fried baby pompano really as small as nickels? Is that risottolike dish of roasted farro, the grain beloved by the Etruscans, really bound with puréed Jerusalem artichokes? Did I just miss out on the bäco?

The coffee is from cult roaster Four Barrel; the rice pudding is among the best in town.

LAZY OX CANTEEN: 241 S. San Pedro St., dwntwn. (213) 626-5299, lazyoxcanteen.com. Dinner nightly, 5 p.m.-mid. AE, MC, V. Beer and wine. Snacks and small plates, $4-$17; main courses $18-$25; desserts $7. Recommended dishes: roasted pasilla soup with chicharrones; fried baby pompano; farro with sunchoke purée; beef paleron with kumquats and cream of wheat; rice pudding.

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