Locals in downtown's Historic Core this week were quick to sniff out the area's newest lunchtime option, Bäco Mercat. The eatery -- still in its "soft-opening" -- greeted its first customers Tuesday.
"We decided at midnight on Monday that we would open doors for two hours the next day," chef-owner Josef Centeno told us yesterday. "We're playing it by ear." Just before noon, Centeno illuminated a glowing red "bäco" sign, signaling the start of lunch.
As we reported in mid-October, the bäco stars at this casual-chic spot next door to Pete's Cafe. The bäco fan club from Centeno's past restaurants -- Meson G, Opus, Lot 1 -- and the Lazy Ox Canteen, where he is chef and partner, can finally indulge in Centeno's concept of a "sandwich-taco-pizza hybrid."
Not all planned menu items are being served yet (no bazole soup), but there are still plenty of options. On the restaurant's second day a server jokingly called the guests "guinea pigs." She then added in a serious tone, "but the food's perfect."
You can choose from five bäcos -- "the original" with pork belly, beef carnitas, smoked ailoi and salbitxada, "pesco" with crispy shrimp, cabbage, sriracha and chive dressing, "el pollo" with chicken escabeche, zhoug and spiced lebni, "porchetta" with eggplant, apple and sahawep, or "fava bean fritter" with poblano-feta, chickpea and slamorejo ($8 each). The bäco may be majestic but the presentation is humble -- a brown paper wrapper nestled in a cardboard tray.
Or there's the coca, a Spanish dish described as "crispy flat bread" with toppings. The "egg" is garnished with salsa verde, farm egg and ricotta cheese. The "tomato and cheese" is adorned with confit tomato sauce, mozzarella, smoked jalapeno and basil. "El cordero" is topped with merguez, harissa and mint. The "roasted eggplant" blends yogurt, sahawep and zataar ($9 each).
Five side dishes complement the main menu: Grain salad with cucumber and mint, market lettuce with sherry vinaigrette, potato salad with bäcon, boiled egg and tarragon, plus pickled vegetable salad with olive oil ($5 each). The desert menu isn't printed yet, but are available if you ask your server.
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A variety of wines, beers and spirits is on hand. Plus sweet-and-sour soda, mint tea and orange-ginger-juniper-flavored "Bäco Pop" in custom-labeled glass bottles. At the "mercat" (market) shelves you can find Bäco Pop, house-made vinegar and Bäco Mercat t-shirts. Outside Bäco Mercat, a row of old fashioned schoolhouse chairs lines the patio.
For now, guests order at the counter then scout out a table. The bar does double-duty as a counter, encouraging friendly conversation. "How do you eat a bäco?" one young woman asked Wednesday. "You stuff your face with it," responded a neighbor who was back for her second visit in two days.