Three and a half years ago, Joaquin Baca was a fresh-off-the-turnip-truck New Mexico cook who answered an ad on Monster.com for a new East Village noodle bar. Today, he’s David Chang’s partner, co-owner of the expanding Momofuku empire, and on the brink of a new challenge: running the kitchen at the Rusty Knot (425 West St., at 11th St.; 212-645-5668), the new West Side “dive” bar from the Spotted Pig’s Ken Friedman and Freemans’ Taavo Somer. In a moment of calm before the inevitable celebrity-fueled storm, Baca, 32, talked to us about his passion for 99-cent beer, Chinese takeout, and garage tripe—and waxed rhapsodic about luring weak-willed weekend warriors off the West Side Highway running path with the promise of salty pretzel dogs and cold pints.
Ko just opened, and Momofuku Inc. has never been busier. Why get involved in this project?
It seemed like a fun idea. Ken’s a fun guy. There’s a lot of talk about it being an ironic dive bar, a velvet-rope dive bar, and I don’t really know where this is all coming from. We’ve got a 99-cent beer and $3 cans—it’s a bar bar.
The nautical motif isn’t exactly subtle.
No, Taavo is from Minneapolis. This is the kind of bar he used to hang out at. And Ken wears fucking Hawaiian shirts year round. But these guys are making sour mixes from scratch. There are like four or five cases of lemons in the walk-in. They’re making tiki drinks and mai tais, but they’re using good juices and fresh stuff. We’re making a little neighborhood bar but putting the proper effort into it.
That goes for the food too. How’d you come up with the menu?
I tried to envision sitting here in the summertime—the blinds are open, it’s sunset, people are running on the path—and it seemed sort of obvious what would fit in. Once we walked in here and started hanging fish on the walls and ship steering wheels, it seemed like the obvious direction.
And then the night of the pre-opening party, you found out that you’d have to lose more than half of the menu because the building deep-sixed the fryer.
Right. So now there’s some one-bowl pickups, some soupy kind of stuff. I got a bunch of crawfish and razor clams yesterday. So it’s coming around.
Are you sticking to one particular seaside environment, like Key West?
There’s some Old Bay going on, some Gulf of Mexico. I lived in Portugal, so I have a lot of memories of chorizo and clams.
How do you define bar food?
It’s got to be fast. It should be compact. Things to munch. Little plastic baskets lined with paper. If you’re running along the West Side Highway and you decide, Oh, fuck this whole exercise thing, I want to go have some drinks and a salty pretzel dog. That’s sort of how it works, right? Give them something salty, and they want a drink.
It’s a bit more than that. You’re making your own spicy pickles, you’ve got a chicken-liver-and-bacon sandwich with red- onion marmalade, and you’re putting sweetbreads in your meat pies.
Yeah, little bits of sweetbread, just enough to give it a fatty, funky flavor. They’re handheld, empanada style.
Where did you learn to cook?
My parents are diplomats, so I didn’t grow up in the States. We lived in South America and Southeast Asia, and when I was 18, I went to the University of Texas. I walked into a Whole Foods, worked in the prep kitchen for about a year, and after that I worked at a bunch of café jobs. I lasted about a year at this vegetarian restaurant before I realized that I wanted to cook with some actual meat.
What food reminds you of your childhood?
Fresh tortillas get me every time. My grandma’s tripe too. She used to cook it out in the garage. It smells like a wet dog. It’s one of those things, it smells bad but you learn to love that smell.
Who would you most like to cook for?
I’ve sort of got to cook for most of my chef heroes already: Ferran Adrià, Thomas Keller, Daniel, Jean-Georges, Wylie [Dufresne]. I don’t really give a shit about any celebrities, but don’t tell Ken that.
What do you always have in the fridge?
Mexican beer and Chinese from Family Garden in Williamsburg. I got some the other night: General Tso’s chicken, pork lo mein, bean curd and vegetables, and hot-and-sour soup. I was by myself, too.