The Lazy Ox Canteen, Little Tokyo Los Angeles – Josef Centeno: Our Neighborhood Chef
I’m going on my 5th year with this blog and in retrospect, I can’t believe how writing about food has changed my life in numerous ways. The most important being the way I viewed other cultures, valued family and friendships and even finding love. I first started writing about places I grew up on and eventually made some dramatic turns. For me, knowing about music, food and art are great cultural values. So I made a point to approach everything with an open-mind and try anything and everything â€“ like Bourdain, who I highly respect. When J and I met, we were eating a lot of street food and affordable ethnic food. Naturally, the more you enjoy food, the more likely you will move from low end to high end meals. We didn’t really have our “nice” dinner experience together until we ate at A.O.C. We must have looked like beasts with hooves and fangs at the restaurant, but it was definitely different and out of our zone. From there, we just went on an haute cuisine binge. We followed chefs and were lured in by anyone with exquisite plating and Michelin ratings. It was good, but expensive. But after a while, we just got really tired of the richness and stuffiness that these restaurants are sometimes known for. And we found ourselves instead turning the culinary notch down to find something that was more in our league. After all, we are just normal people that live beyond their means ha.
Haute cuisine is by far a male-dominated arena. For me, there’s a clear contrast in male and female chefs. Male chefs like Grant Achatz of Alinea, Ferran Adria of El Bulli and Thomas Keller of the French Laundry are a few examples of culinary mavens. A common style of the aforementioned chefs are small, yet intricate portions of food that create great negative space on $30-100 dinnerware. Some of these dishes, as small as a tablespoon, may contain as much as 25-30 different ingredients. Male chefs can be more aggressive with experimentation and it’s clear that detail and aesthetics are what they shoot for. James Beard Award winner or not, the food started to feel more like art than edible substance.
On the other hand, female chefs can take on a more, well, feminine approach. Chefs like Suzanne Goin, Judy Rodgers and Alice Waters are famous for their usage of farm-fresh, local ingredients, but also the heart they put into their food. There’s also Susan Feniger of Border Grill, Suzanne Tracht of Jar and Naomi Pomeroy of Beast in Portland to add to the list of notable female chefs. There’s warmth and soul behind their dishes, rather than presentation – the main ingredient in our mother’s cooking. Mom made you feel good when you were sick with the simplest of foods. And she always had your favorite dish ready when you came back on weekends during college. The detail is there but masked in sometimes larger portions of food that usually create joy in the stomach rather than tease the tongue.
From that distinction, Jeni and I found ourselves cooking a lot of food from the Zuni Cafe and Sunday Suppers cookbooks. Of the nearly 40 cookbooks we own, the pages on those books are the most dog-eared and tattered with food stains. The food is simple, but a sure win. I believed that female chefs cooked the most soulful food and we were convinced that this would be a consistent trend in the differentiation of male and female chefs.
It wasn’t until we discovered the food of four chefs in Los Angeles that begun to think otherwise. I simply love the food by Palate’s Octavio Becerra, Animal’s John Shook and Vinny Dotolo and Josef Centeno of Opus, Lot 1 Cafe, Bar Celona and now, the Lazy Ox Canteen. These chefs have changed my view on how a male chef approaches food and have really made offals THE main event on a menu, even for people that shudder at the sight of tripe. I feel they have really turned the dial up on warmth and soul, and turned down the dial on aesthetics/minimalism. Some have received classic French training, some just surfaced through an honest passion for cooking. If you haven’t met these chefs before, it’s important to note that they are a bit guerrilla in their own ways and the main reason I respect them so much. It’s not that I don’t enjoy the conventional, usually anal and uptight, French-trained chef, it’s just these guys seem more interesting to me for their bad-boy, across-the-grain and down-to-earth qualities. They are the kinda guys I can have a beer with. “Thomas Keller, you’re up for the keg stand. Go man.” Don’t think so.
A little about these chefs…
Octavio Becerra studied photography at an art school and fell into cooking. He first started washing dishes and in no time, was discovered by Patina’s Joachim Splichal – in fact, Becerra helped Splichal start the Patina Restaurant Group. If you saw Becerra about 20 years ago somewhere in a seedier area, you might expect a punch in the face from him or him to be rolling with a motorcycle crew. While most chefs wear the traditional white long-sleeve coat, neatly buttoned, Becerra is touting a short sleeve version of looks like prison pajamas. At someone his age, I find it amusing talking to him about electronic and indie music. Sometimes on Sundays, you may find him spinning on some tables with DJ Shadow or Cut Chemist. “Daniel Boulud on the wheels of steels.” Ugh, no.
John Shook and Vinny Dotolo before the opening of their successful restaurant, Animal, were known as 2 Dudes Catering on the Food Network. I worked with a catering company for a bit and serviced a few gigs on my own before, and let me tell you, it is TOUGH to make sure that every bit of food goes out tasting the way you want it to. You are more worried about food going out in time while still hot. But these guys, completely impressed me. Their food was solid and not even showy. I walked by the kitchen one time and saw John wearing a band shirt, cut-off Dickies, skater shoes and a typical apron from a greasy short-order restaurant. If it weren’t for the apron, these guys looked like your typical concert-attending, Miller High-Life drinking bud-smokers. Which is like awesome. “Jean Georges Vongerichten, your turn to take a bong rip.” Vut?
And finally, there’s Josef Centeno who first introduced his creativity and talent to Los Angeles at Opus with nicely-priced tasting menus. We started following him when he worked at Lot 1 Cafe in Echo Park and even heard that he would skate to work. His time at Lot 1 Cafe was short-lived and on his last day, we were one of six other couples that went to shake the good man’s hand and bid farewell. One look at Centeno, you would have no idea he was classically-trained at CIA, worked under world-class chefs and probably the most down-to-earth, humble guys.
When word that Josef Centeno had resurfaced in Los Angeles again, J and I were stoked. He is now the executive chef of the Little Tokyo-based gastropub, Lazy Ox Canteen. And how awesome that this was another addition to the sprawling downtown area. I came here on a weekend and returned two days later with some friends for beer. On the first visit, we were surprised that Centeno recognized us. According to Jeni, he indeed had a following.
Lazy Ox Canteen is decorated with beautiful, horizontally-placed wood and handsome lighting. It is good enough to hold large groups of 6-8 without having to listen to loud, obnoxious chatter in places like Bottega Louie. And upon entry, the beer bar draws you in almost instantly. With a nice selection of craft beers on tap and in bottles, it’s hard not to order some liquid before even seeing the menu. The trend now seems to be the importing of lesser-known Japanese beers like at Umami Burger. It used to be difficult to get Hitachino ale, but it’s only a matter of time before Trader Joe’s starts carrying it.
Cod Brandade Fritters with Aioli
I had my first brandade experience at Chicago’s Avec in 2008, and since then tried to find a comparable version. Brandade is served in a casserole dish typically, but Centeno’s version makes it easier for you to eat it and continue to guzzling tasty beer. Funny thing is, I saw a Yelper complain that these were too fishy, when in fact, it was not. If anything, a little more wouldn’t hurt. Another thing I forgot to mention was Centeno’s skill in fried dishes – he is a master of batter. And in this recipe, some club soda is the added touch. Loved these.
Yellowtail with Avocado, Hash Browns and Creme Fraiche
A simple yet tasty mixture of things I usually enjoy separately. This dish takes me to Japan, Mexico, the Midwest and France all at the same time minus the jetlag. With my fork, I cut into all the ingredients and made sort of a miniature “open-faced” sandwich. This was great with a light lager beer.
Boccarones – Fried Sardines
A very tasty Sardine dish that does not taste like Sardines. Usually quite a salty fish, Centeno’s batter makes it enjoyable. It was a bit oily though and needed a lot of beer to bring it down.
Ham & Eggs
A miniature version of the classic American breakfast with pork belly and quail egg instead. This was really fun to eat but I wish the quail egg was runnier and the pork belly more fork-tender.
Crispy Pig Ears with Lime & Radish
And I finally find one of my top three dishes of LOC. Pig ears are not a new thing to the Chinese. But in America, it’s a highly sought-after dish at any fine-dining institution. I have finally found the perfect match for a nice, cold beer. Crispy, well-battered pig ears served with lime and thinly-sliced radish. Interesting enough, all my fave chefs have offered great pig ear dishes, including Octavio Becerra’s pig ear tacos – yum. I’ve put Centeno’s ‘ear rings’ at the first rank, followed shortly by Church & State’s hot, gooey pig ears and Animal’s version served with a runny egg. My friends and I should have ordered our own because we looked like lions feasting on a tiny baby zebra.
Khlii Moroccan-Style Beef Jerky with Fried Egg
I’m a firm believer that if you put a fried egg on anything, life is better. Even stacking a fried egg on top of another fried egg is nice. So with this dish, I ended up placing it in my top three. The combination of a smoky, crunchy jerky, runny egg, salsa verde and grilled bread is a unanimous winner. Again, my friends and I pretended to be unselfish and kept offering the final bite to each other. We were purely bullshitting each other.
Charred-Octopus with Lime Beans and Smoked Paprika
I learned in Hawaii that I’m an octopus’s predator only on land. I rarely turn down any octopus dish now and Centeno’s version was enjoyable. The subtle char of the grilled octopus, starchy beans, savory veggies and smoked paprika are having a great time in the hot tub. Smoked paprika is my favorite spice.
Grilled Tuna Collar
If you look at a fat man, two parts stick out the most – the double or triple chin and the belly. On most animals or fish, these are the best parts. Places like Hunan Restaurant in Rosemead offer a killer fish head and collar dish that will make you look at the head differently. I highly recommend trying the collar of any fish, it’s great. Centeno’s comes simply grilled but the addition of lentils and lima beans makes this one very homey meal. We turned this thing into a fossil.
On Mondays, wine bottles are half price â€“ call for the times. And from 5-7 pm everyday, there are five dishes nicely priced at $5. Enjoy.
Lazy Ox Canteen
241 San Pedro Street
Los Angeles, CA 90012