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The chef's new book celebrates downtown L.A. and wonderful flavors from all over

Andy Wang
September 25, 2017

Prominent L.A. chefs including Roy Choi, Zach Pollack, Jeremy Fox, Nicole Rucker, Shawn Pham and Josiah Citrin hung out with scene-making artists and musicians on Sunday as they celebrated the release of Josef Centeno's Bäco cookbook. One of Centeno's pals, Nick Valensi from The Strokes, performed outside with his new band CRX.

But the brightest shining star of the blowout bash at downtown L.A.'s Bar Ama might have been the mindblowing queso fountain. Centeno is from San Antonio, and Bar Ama is his Tex-Mex restaurant, so he set up a DIY Super Nacho Bar with tortilla chips, the queso fountain and assorted fixins like picadillo, chorizo and guacamole. It was glorious.

Choi went to the fountain twice. He humbly told me that he tried to make some nachos by going "directly under the fountain, but I couldn't make it happen, so I used the spoon."

Choi was the victim of bad timing. The fountain wasn't full of cheese when he tried.

The fountain was refilled right when I walked up to the Super Nacho Bar. I didn't take any chances. I used the spoon.

Famed barman Eric Alperin of 213 Hospitality did a doubletake when he saw queso set up like chocolate fondue. For this party, he said, the queso made a lot more sense.

"It's pretty amazing," Alperin said, echoing what half a dozen people told me at the party.

I'm from Texas myself and I was gobsmacked by the queso fountain. I needed to put this into context. So I asked fellow Texan Michael Suter (whose wife Lesley was the longtime food editor at Los Angeles magazine) where this ranked among wonderful things he had experienced in his life. I told him to use a scale from 0 to infinity.

"Definitely infinity," he replied, without any hesitation.

It turns out the queso fountain wasn't just a one-off for Sunday's party.

"I think we'll do it for catering and parties," Centeno said. "It's super fun. I think if we can find a battery-operated one and one that's small enough, we're entertaining the idea …"

The idea of multiple tabletop queso fountains at Bar Ama! This is something that Centeno's co-author Betty Hallock also mentioned when I had e-mailed with her before the party.

Centeno, as you might have guessed, is really good at keeping things loose and fun at his downtown L.A. restaurant empire. But given that he just released his first cookbook, it's important to point out that there's also remarkable seriousness and skill behind everything he does. His new book, with gorgeous photos from Dylan James Ho and Jeni Afuso, is about being an Angeleno and an American who breaks boundaries and celebrates multicultural flavors.

This is a chef named Josef Centeno who rose to fame with his taco/gyro/sandwich hybrids at Bäco Mercat, which also serves some of the brightest, boldest and most delicious vegetable dishes L.A. has ever eaten. This is a chef who focuses on produce-forward cooking at P.Y.T., who makes exemplary cheeseburgers at Ledlow, who serves elegant Japanese-Italian tasting menus at Orsa & Winston and who, yes, has spectacular nachos at Bar Ama.

I could write more about who he is and how much he pioneered downtown L.A., but nothing can encapsulate Centeno and his roots and why he matters better than what Hallock (the former deputy food editor at the Los Angeles Times) recently posted on Instagram: "Really proud of @chefjosefcenteno—from a long line of dreamers who sold aguas frescas at rodeos and enchiladas at train stations and opened the first vegetable stand at San Antonio's first farmers market and then the first chain of Latino supermarkets in Texas. They were from Mexico, Germany, Ireland, Spain, France, and Poland.—And his cookbook that honors downtown L.A. and celebrates the flavors of everywhere."

Bäco has recipes for Mexican sriracha and dishes that merge Middle Eastern and Continental flavors. Which is to say, Bäco is about American food. More than anything else, it's a book about how L.A. eats in 2017, written by a chef who's influenced this as much as anybody else.

Baco: Vivid Recipes From the Heart of Los Angeles is available to order on Amazon.com

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