When food obsessives get to the future of restaurant food in L.A., sooner or later the discussion comes around to Josef Centeno, an uncommonly gifted chef who seems always to wash up at the wrong restaurant at the wrong time — even those of us who didn’t much care for his postmodern tapas at Meson G loved the brilliant but doomed pan-cultural degustation menus at Opus and the updated brunchisms at Lot One. Centeno had all the prerequisites for kitchen stardom — a sweet smile, a working command of Mediterranean, izakaya and Salvadoran cuisines, and a signature snack, the baco. He just lacked the most crucial ingredient: a restaurant that people wanted to visit more than once.
So the Lazy Ox Canteen, a sort of wine-inclusive beer hall fitted into a new condo building in Little Tokyo, may be the venue Centeno’s followers have always dreamed of. The dining room is loud but not overbearing; the crowd skews young but not undergrad-intensive; the beverage list rewards a working knowledge of Furmint and Japanese IPAs but isn’t oppressive to those who don’t. And Centeno’s vigorous, imaginative and not-quite-polished cooking is the sort of thing you want to dive into: from the fried pig’s ears with horseradish sauce and the house-made merguez sausage with licorice-braised pear to the spoonably-soft braised-beef shoulder with kumquats on a polentalike bed of cream of wheat and a dynamite soup of puréed poblano chiles peppered with a handful of crunchy pork rinds. Prices — and attitudes toward customers who come in and nurse an order of Moroccan-style beef jerky with a single glass of verdejo — are gentle.
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.