Is the L.A. neighborhood the epicenter of fast-casual dining? It's starting to look that way.
Credit: © Wonho Frank Lee

Culver City is where Josef Centeno, the chef who dominates downtown Los Angeles with his wonderful and eclectic restaurant empire (Bäco Mercat, Bar Ama, Orsa & Winston, Ledlow, P.Y.T.), opened BäcoShop in March.

BäcoShop, which serves Centeno’s signature bäcos with steak, shrimp, chicken, pork and eggplant on puffy bread, is something the chef hopes will grow into a collection of fast-casual spots. So, what is a “bäco,” exactly? Is it a sandwich, a taco, a gyro or a hybrid of all three?

"To me, it was always just a vessel for everything I like to cook," Centeno says.

Credit: © Wonho Frank Lee

Like at all of Centeno's restaurants, the chef is using BäcoShop to showcase bold multicultural flavors and his deep affection for vegetables. (P.Y.T., which opened last year to widespread critical acclaim, emphasizes produce above all else.) BäcoShop's excellent chile shrimp is paired with sriracha, buttermilk cabbage slaw and mint. Green herb chicken pops with thyme, Meyer lemon vinaigrette, spiced yogurt, cabbage and parsley. There are pickled beets with turmeric vinaigrette. Brussels sprouts and kale are topped with pecorino and anchovy vinaigrette, a nod to Caesar salad, of course. If you're feeling frisky, you can ask for off-menu nacho tots.

"Vegetables have always been on the same level as any meat or fish that I was cooking," says Centeno, who credits Ron Siegel at San Francisco's Charles Nob Hill as one of the chefs who led him down this plant-forward path. "Being exposed to the produce in San Francisco changed my world."

BäcoShop serves fast-casual food, like a Chipotle or Panera, but it's also seasonal and hyper-local. Centeno plans on changing his menu constantly. He recently bought a van for trips to farmers’ markets all over the city. He gets ingredients for BäcoShop the same way he gets ingredients for his more upscale restaurants, by scouring farmers’ markets in Santa Monica, Torrance, Hollywood and Silver Lake for the best produce.

"You're hitting a completely different demographic," Centeno says of opening a fast-casual concept. "I wanted to delve into cooking the way I cook for a wider audience. We're still cooking like a full-service restaurant."

At BäcoShop, you can spend $15 for a sandwich, side and BäcoPop soda from a chef who also happens to serve Japanese-Italian tasting menus at Orsa & Winston and previously worked at fine-dining institutions Daniel and Manresa.

Centeno is trying to bring his food to the masses, and he understands that this poses some new challenges.

"Customers still don't understand seasonality," says Centeno, who knows that many guests are going to wonder why they can't order the same dish year-round. "That's going to be kind of an obstacle. We're trying to make it clear from the beginning that the menu is going to change."

Credit: Courtesy of Sweetgreen

Centeno isn't alone in his desire to create seasonal fast-casual. In fact, the company that's at the forefront of this movement, Sweetgreen, has its corporate headquarters and a restaurant/test kitchen in Culver City's Platform shopping development. That's about a 10-minute stroll from BäcoShop. Known as “The Lab,” the hybrid test-kitchen-restaurant features a glass cube where Sweetgreen tries out different vegetables, salad combinations, cooking techniques and beverages. It’s also where they figure out how the food should be portioned, packaged and marketed. New dishes that Sweetgreen has recently tested include a Thai cashew tofu salad and a fish taco quinoa bowl.

"We're re-thinking fast-casual," says founder Nicolas Jammet, whose company builds its own supply chains in each of its markets by working directly with farmers who often grow produce specifically for Sweetgreen. "Your menu has to change with the ground and the soil and the farmers. It changes based on what the farmers are growing."

And despite the fact that Sweetgreen is a fast-growing chain, all of its locations are committed to the quality of cooking.

"We do full-scratch cooking," says Jammet, who adds that everybody who works at Sweetgreen, including himself and co-founders Jonathan Neman and Nathaniel Ru, helps prepare food. "Every vegetable, every meat, every dressing is made in-house. There's no commissary."

The point, of course, is innovating an industry. (Sweetgreen's backers include AOL founder Steve Case's investment firm, as well as culinary luminaries David Chang, Daniel Boulud, Joe Bastianich and Danny Meyer.) Jammet is also proud of the success of his mobile-ordering app; he says over 30% of Sweetgreen’s transactions are digital. He loves being a cashless business that understands it's worth paying credit-card fees to create more efficient and safer restaurants.

Credit: Courtesy of Sweetgreen

"I don't want to pay someone to count nickels," Jammet says. "We want to pay them to learn and develop and grow and make food."

Culver City makes perfect sense as the location of Sweetgreen's headquarters, as the area is home to all kinds of innovative companies and start-ups. Jammet is friends with the crew from MeUndies, which also has its headquarters in the neighborhood. Beats by Dre's campus is in Culver City, too. Add this to the walkability of the area, the new Platform restaurant/retail/office complex, a new Metro Rail station and easy access to the beach and L.A.'s farmers’ markets, and you'll quickly understand why Sweetgreen moved from Washington, D.C. to Culver City last year.

"Coming from an urban setting, we wanted some sort of streetscape," says Jammet, who lives in Venice and still doesn't have a car. (He uses UberX a lot.) "We wanted to able to go outside, get a coffee, walk around the block. It was really important to give our employees a community. And in the nine years we've been alive, you've always been able to walk to a Sweetgreen from our offices. We like being able to walk downstairs into a Sweetgreen."

When he's not eating at Sweetgreen, Jammet enjoy strolling over to Destroyer. That's the Culver City restaurant run by Jordan Kahn, one of Food & Wine's 2017 Best New Chefs.

Technically, you could count Destroyer as “fast casual” because you order at the counter, and your food comes quickly. But given Kahn's elaborate plating, his foraging tendencies and his manipulation of ingredients, Destroyer isn't the kind of restaurant that's designed to scale into multiple units. You have to admit, though, that dishes like beef tartare with smoked egg cream and mushrooms (which was covered in radishes when I visited and now features chicory, instead) kind of taste like the future.