Leading up to this year's Best of L.A. issue (due out Oct. 4), we'll be counting down, in no particular order, 100 of our favorite dishes.
91: Bäco Mercat's Bäzole.
If you pull up a chair at Bäco Mercat, Josef Centeno's downtown restaurant -- a beautiful collection of brick and glass and wooden furniture the chef probably sanded down himself -- you may forget to order the bäzole, even if you've pilgrimaged here precisely for this reason. Because you may get diverted by the bäco, the sandwich Centeno is justly famous for, or any of the small plates of brilliantly envisioned vegetables, or the foie mousse in a Mason jar, or the confit goose leg salad. Or any of the dishes built around a seeming United Nations' catalog of sauces. Centeno's various menus read like a saucier's slightly hallucinatory dreamscape: Larousse Gastronomique meets Salman Rushdie. Anyway, do not forget to order the bäzole, no matter how much you've ordered. Write the word (It's got an umlaut! It's trademarked!) on your hand in Sharpie if you have to.
What is bäzole? It is a bowl of soup, yes, but to reduce it to such a common monosyllable is to vastly underestimate its power and scope. Or maybe not. "Soup" has the kind of elemental, even cosmological connotation that suits what goes on in this bowl. Imagine a hybrid of pozole, phở and ramen, triangulated via Centeno's classical training, his stints at fancy restaurants (Daniel, Manresa, Meson G, etc.) and his native Texas. As with the rest of the menu, this is not fusion so much as utter reinvention. The soup is also a look into the way Centeno thinks about food: His dishes are built from a crazy quilt of components, with the spinning machinery of logic and imagination, curiosity and technique.
The bäzole -- which also recently appeared on the menu in salad form -- starts with a broth built from beef trim, marrow bones and roasted chicken bones. It was originally more of a tonkotsu-style broth, with hominy cooked in it (hence the pozole), but Centeno says he eliminated the hominy, both because of the texture and because the Mexican elements of the Bäco menu are migrating to his forthcoming nearby Tex-Mex restaurant, Bar Ama'. (If you came up with the name bäzole, you wouldn't change it either.)
Into the broth: the noodles, made in-house daily, nicely chewy alkali noodles that resemble medium-sized curly ramen noodles; the carnitas, both pork and beef, that also go into the original bäco, hence the name; a fried egg, lurking under a raft of the same varieties of fresh herbs that went into the broth (see: phở); mushrooms; and, infusing and informing it all, the chile paste, which Centeno makes with about a dozen and a half kinds of Mexican chiles.
The slow heat of the chiles and the brightness of the fresh herbs permeate the dish as you spoon it up, the yolk of the egg breaking into the broth and enriching it like a carbonara sauce. It is a glorious thing, possibly surpassing even the happiness factor of the bäco. Order the banana cream pie if you dare.
Check out the rest of our 100 of our favorite dishes. Suggestion? Write us a comment.
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