Downtown Los Angeles lacks the glitz and glamor associated with the city. Most avoid the area when the lights go down, and even in the daytime people go straight from their car to their destination and scurry back to their car. It’s slowly working its way up into culinary relevance and Main Street in The Old Bank District is leading the charge. Bäco Mercat is sandwiched between two other lively restaurants that stick out like a sore thumb in the neighborhood.
A few tables sit in front of the restaurant, enclosed by bright green shrubbery, which allows for people to enjoy the warm Los Angeles air. Inside a bright bar area fills the front entrance, while the dining room is marked by high ceilings and low hanging lights.
During lunchtime, Bäco Mercat could be a microcosm for the traditional Los Angeles crowd; producers talk about their latest film at the table over, beautiful-petite models sip sparkling water, and even the new Mayor of LA, Eric Garcetti sits with a few close confident for a business meeting in the back.
Leigh and I waited for one of the few tables outside, grabbing a seat at the bar while we waited. I glanced over the drink menu, being caught off guard by the Tomato-Basil Soda featured on the menu. Never before have I seen such an unusual drink. The bartender described the soda as extremely fresh, with a sour-sweet component from the vinegar based simple syrup. The cherry tomatoes and basil are muddled at the bottom of the glass, followed by the syrup and topped with seltzer. For someone like myself who is a self-proclaimed seltzer addict, this is my dream.
While this sounds weird to the naked eye, Tomato-Basil Soda might just the most natural, amazing drink to never grace any other menu. It’s slightly sweet, bitter and beyond refreshing. The flavoring of the basil and tomato is really subtle, just having been muddled at the bottom of the drink, but still enhances the vinegar syrup and sparkling seltzer . The soda is fresh and light and I cannot wait to try and recreate this in New York.
After a few sips, we were lead to our table outside, in our own little area all the way on the left. We enjoyed our drink, paying special attention to the numerous detectives and members of the secret service surrounding the restaurant due to the Mayor’s presence inside.
The single page menu is broken into a variety of sections; small plates, Bäco, Bäzole, and Coca. The center of the Spanish sounding dishes is their signature flat bread, which has a similar texture and shape to Naan, but made with a yogurt base. The small plates are based on seasonal ingredients, keeping things simple, while still introducing unique flavor profiles.
We attempted to order all the dishes one by one, but unfortunately the waiter didn’t listen to our request. The dishes kept appearing until our little table was covered with bowls and plates of all shapes and sizes. I’ll start from the beginning, Caesar Brussels Sprouts.
The shaved raw Brussels sprouts lack any of the heaviness associated with a Caesar salad. The light, raw vegetable is enhanced by the pickled red onions and the salty pecarino romano. Each bite is crrunchy, slightly sweet and really fresh. While, I don’t think it has the same flavor as a Caesar salad, it’s still a fresh, must-order.
Quite possibly the heaviest dish of the day was the Pee Wee Potato Salad, and even this was a slightly lighter interpretation of the traditional mayo heavy dish. Oh LA, you know how to make the heavy dishes even better and healthier without compromising flavor.
Golden Brown pieces of chilled potato are tossed in a light mixture of egg and topped with salty, slivers of pecorino and fresh chives. The warm pieces of crispy Italian sausage are misshaped to allow for the entire surface to have a crunchy, almost coral-like texture, but in a good way. The contrast between the sweet, savory potatoes and the slightly spicy, crunchy sausage, along with the fresh herbs creates a really elegant potato salad. I’d happily eat this often over the overly mayo, caloric fest you see at so many summer bar-b-q’s. Recipe, please!
The dish that really stood out was a summer special, the Grilled Peaches with Goat Cheese. This dish had me at hello.
Fresh perfection on a beautifully crafted, wooden plate designed with a slightly curved edge to keep all of the vinaigrette concentrated in the middle. The sweet peaches have a light smokiness from the grill, enhancing the flavor and juicy nature of the fresh fruit. The tangy goat cheese helps to balance the natural sweetness of the peaches and the crunch of the hazelnuts and pomegranates balances out the dish. The most unusual element is the fresh basil, which brightens the entire dish. You would think that mint would be the natural choice, but basil adds a light freshness, making this dish slightly unusual and absolutely divine.
Finally, our last dish of the day was one of the namesake dishes, Bäco with a Lamb Meatball. Although Leigh couldn’t eat the flat bread because of gluten, the waiter explained that its really easy to separate the elements, We couldn’t let a little gluten stop us from ordering one of these.
The Lamb Meatballs break apart with such ease proving how moist and tender they are. The light, sweet tomato sauce enhances the meat, which has a light, fluffiness. The creme fraiche adds a creaminess and subtle tangy, citrus notes. The arugula and red onion mixture, along with the mint, adds a necessary freshness. We didn’t even find the need for the flat bread because the meatball was so phenomenal on its own. The lamb had a Mediterranean spice mix and pine nuts to elevate the ground meat. Easily one of the best meatballs I have ever enjoyed.
The hype around Bäco Mercat is well deserved. The food is delicious, fresh and crazy creative. Every dish is created with some kind of unimaginable twist that’s so simple you don’t know why you’ve never seen it before. The fresh and light dishes reminds me why in LA, people are remarkably thin, while driving everywhere. It’s the perfect spot for lunch, especially because at night the area can be a bit seedy. The prices are just right, and we had delicious left-overs for the next afternoon. So if you’re in LA, check this place out, order one of their crazy sodas, and you’ll be very happy.
Bäco Mercat – 408 South Main Street – Los Angeles, CA
Location: Los Angeles, CA
Type: Spanish, Tapas
Perfect For: Impressing Foodies, Casual Meal, Small Plates, First Dates, Celebrity Sightings
Reservations: Available via BacoMercat.com
Favorite Dishes: Grilled Peach Salad, “Caesar” Brussels Sprouts, Lamb Meatball Bäco