When James Beard Award-nominated chef Josef Centeno opened his first solo restaurant, Bäco Mercat, in downtown Los Angeles in 2011, there were only a handful of restaurants in the area; few Angelenos drove downtown for dining or nightlife. But Bäco was packed on day one. Today, Centeno owns five restaurants in the area, and is credited with helping to spur downtown LA’s revitalization.
Bäco: Vivid Recipes from the Heart of Los Angeles, written with Betty Hallock and available now, is the story of Centeno’s life, his love for downtown LA, and his unique approach to layering texture and flavor in each dish.
Centeno’s food looks like fine art in the photographs by Dylan + Jeni; vivid but painterly, the images could grace postcards or canvases. They sell the food the chef’s fans have come to know and love: his signature, the bäco, is a messy-but-delicious cross between a pizza, taco, and sandwich that might be filled with a stew, rough cuts of meat and vegetables, or complex salads. But they’re not the only thing on offer at Bäco.
Since opening day, Centeno’s menu has had a meat section, and skirt steak — marinated in something sweet and sour, grilled until the edges are black and crisp and the fat renders, and served with something creamy, spicy, and acidic — has always been presented in some form. It’s a tricky cut of meat to cook and present well, but Centeno’s recipe ensures success.
Skirt steak with horseradish yogurt and beets bi tahina
I always got excited when my dad brought home skirt steak from the butcher counter. It usually happened on a weekend, and it always meant grilling fajitas and eating outdoors and a spread that included a lot of tortillas, guacamole, and salsa. Skirt steak is more flavorful than a lot of other cuts of beef and has relatively good marbling even if it isn’t the most tender. Two important points about skirt steak: it must be cooked quickly over high heat, and it must be cut properly — across the grain. The quick cooking is a bonus because it means dinner fast. I also like to give the steaks plenty of room in the pan so that it doesn’t lose heat and use enough oil that there is even caramelization. (To that end, cook the steaks one at a time; if your pan is large enough to cook two of them, there should be at least an inch between steaks.) Here, skirt steak is seasoned with salt and pepper, seared in a super-hot pan, and basted with butter and thyme. Serve it with spicy horseradish yogurt and beet “hummus,” a combination that reminds me of the Polish condiment cwikla.
Note: The beets bi tahina and horseradish yogurt can be prepared a day in advance.
SERVES 2 TO 4
1 cup [270 g] Greek yogurt
1 1/2 Tbsp prepared horseradish
1 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 tsp salt
Fresh black pepper
2 skirt steaks, about 11/2 lb [680 g] total
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
2 Tbsp avocado or olive oil
2 Tbsp butter
6 sprigs thyme
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 cup [220 g] beets bi tahina
Make the horseradish yogurt:
Mix the Greek yogurt, horseradish, extra-virgin olive oil, salt, and black pepper in a bowl. If not using right away, store in a covered container in the refrigerator for up to 1 day.
Pat the steaks dry with paper towels and season with the salt and black pepper.
Heat 1 Tbsp of the avocado oil in a large frying pan over high heat until the oil is hot and shimmering. Carefully place one of the steaks in the pan and sear for 1 minute. Flip the steak and sear on the second side for 1 minute, then add 1 Tbsp of the butter to the pan, along with 3 of the thyme sprigs and 1 of the crushed garlic cloves.
Carefully tilt the pan slightly to one side and, using a large spoon, continuously baste the steak with the melted butter for 30 seconds. Remove from the heat. Transfer the steak, thyme, and garlic to a plate, loosely cover with aluminum foil, and let rest.
Discard the used oil and butter, wipe the pan clean with a paper towel, and repeat the searing and basting with the remaining avocado oil, butter, thyme, and garlic for the second steak. Remove from the heat and transfer the steak, thyme, and garlic to the plate and loosely cover with the foil. Let rest for 7 minutes.
Cut both steaks into slices across the grain and transfer to a platter.
Serve immediately with bowls of the horseradish yogurt and beets bi tahina.
Beets bi tahini
Beet “hummus” is an oxymoron. Hummus is the Arabic word for “chickpeas” (the full name for the Middle Eastern hummus we know and love is hummus bi tahina, or “chickpeas with tahini”). But this brilliantly colored beet version is hummus in spirit, a creamy, textured dip for smearing onto vegetables or flatbreads. And it otherwise has all of the same ingredients as chickpea hummus— sesame paste, lemon juice, and garlic. I like this earthy-but-bright beet “hummus” as a dip, swirled with a little yogurt, for crudités, or spread on toast with ricotta or fresh goat cheese or farmer cheese. I also use it as a condiment to serve alongside a roast or steak (page 249).
Note: I use Japanese sesame paste, labeled atari goma, which can be found at Japanese markets and online. It can be substituted with high-quality unsalted tahini.
MAKES ABOUT 1 CUP [220 G]
2 beets, about 9 oz [250 g] total
1/2 Tbsp olive oil
Fresh black pepper
2 Tbsp water
1 sprig thyme
1 small garlic clove, peeled
2 to 3 Tbsp sesame paste
2 Tbsp white sesame seeds
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Heat the oven to 400°F [200°C].
Place the beets in the center of a large piece of aluminum foil. Coat the beets with the olive oil and season with a pinch of salt and a few grinds of black pepper. Add the water and thyme and fold the foil into a sealed packet. Put the foil packet on a baking sheet and roast the beets until tender, 45 to 60 minutes. Remove from the oven and set aside. When cool enough to handle, peel the beets and set aside to cool completely. Discard the thyme.
Put the beets, garlic, sesame paste, sesame seeds, lemon juice, and
1/2 tsp salt in a food processor and pulse to a coarse purée. Serve immediately or store, covered, in the refrigerator for up to 2 days.
Excerpted from Bäco: Vivid Recipes from the Heart of Los Angeles by Josef Centeno and Betty Hallock, photographs by Dylan James Ho and Jeni Afuso (Chronicle Books, 2017).