When Josef Centeno opened Bäco Mercat a little less than a year ago, the stunning menu — calibrated to suit both California produce and myriad Spanish sauces — and happy atmosphere were less a surprise than the fact that it was actually Centeno's first restaurant. The Texas-born chef was a veteran of many wonderful kitchens (Manresa, Meson G, Opus, Lazy Ox) but had never opened his own place. In this case the wait was well worth it, as the restaurant quickly found a spot on the list of this town's (and the country's) best. Centeno has a creative, wildly eclectic approach to food, and a sensibility that is partly that of a classically trained saucier and partly that of a backyard inventor. His bäco (it's trademarked!), a hybrid taco-gyro thing built with bread Centeno makes himself, and his bäzole, a bowl of soup situated somewhere between pho and pozole, are emblematic of the chef's cooking. Sitting under the vaulted ceilings of the small restaurant, on furniture the chef refurnished himself, you can order anything on the crazy-quilt menu and be assured that you'll leave utterly happy. Like some heavy-metal bands, Centeno uses his umlaut for mysterious reasons; unlike those bands, Centeno's diacritic is a repeated mark of excellence. 408 S. Main St., dwntwn. (213) 687-8808, bacomercat.com.
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