In a country full of culinary hybrids, Tex-Mex is perhaps the biggest bastard of them all, the illegitimate child of two underdog cuisines. When we think of Tex-Mex, we think of liquid cheese with a plastic skin, goopy oversalted monstrosities served at chain restaurants, chalupas and chimichangas and deep-fried junk food.
Yet there are people who grew up along the border eating this food. Their families had an authentic connection to the foods of both Texas and Mexico — and their experience of the hybrid is authentically American. One such person is Josef Centeno, a chef who has already proven himself a master of the culinary mash-up with Bäco Mercat, a restaurant that plays with Spanish, Asian, Latin American and Mediterranean flavors yet somehow manages to feel and taste utterly cohesive.
At his new restaurant, Bar Amá, Centeno looks to celebrate and honor the food of his youth, the food he grew up eating at the hands of his mother and grandmother. There's also a sense that some of what Bar Amá celebrates is not home cooking but the giddily delicious cheese and meat glop served in cheap restaurants in Texas.
What Centeno ultimately gives us is an extremely fun downtown restaurant that feels like both a love letter to his youth and a testament to his present status as one of L.A.'s most engaging chefs.
Bar Amá looks very much the part it's playing: a middlebrow Tex-Mex restaurant with a few fancy touches. The ceilings of the downtown storefront building are high, the cups and plates are enameled tin, the tables are lined with brown paper, and the music and conversation are loud. The walls are made of planks of reclaimed wood, sanded by Centeno himself and arranged in an appealing chevron pattern.
In some respects, this is two restaurants in one. The first serves giant mounds of guacamole, oozy bowls of queso dip and gut-bomb enchiladas smothered in cheese. It's slutty Mexican-American food made with better ingredients than is typical of the genre but with the same emotional underpinnings: salt, fat and a touch of delicious sleaze. The other restaurant has slightly higher ambitions and serves next-generation riffs on Mexican ingredients and California produce. While plenty of customers will be regulars purely for the fat-kid fun of restaurant No. 1, and plenty of food snobs will lean toward restaurant No. 2, the best way to experience Bar Amá is to indulge in both extremes.
People are going nuts for that queso dip, although I suspect it's just because this restaurant has a pedigree, and therefore diners are allowed to admit to a fondness for liquid cheese. And liquid cheese is great, if you're in the mood for it. But while Centeno uses a mix of real cheeses plus milk and cornstarch rather than Velveeta, I found no particular distinction in his version.
It would be hard to argue, however, against Nana's Frito pie, a dense stack of Fritos, chile con carne made from tongue, and crema. And you'd be remiss not to indulge in the puffy tacos on at least one visit — they're tacos that have been deep-fried so the tortillas puff up into savory clouds, at once brittle and stretchy and more than a little wondrous. Your kids will love them. You will love them.
The dishes that made me stop and swoon were most likely to be in the vegetable section; they channel an almost psychedelic vision of border cuisine. There's one featuring güero peppers — vegetal, tangy and occasionally wickedly spicy — served in a melting pool of goat cheese, sprinkled with pomegranate seeds. There's also cauliflower bathed in cilantro pesto with cashews, pine nuts and a kick of lime, and a salad of chayote, sweet sunchokes, grapefruit and pickled potatoes.
There are a couple of fantastic meaty mash-ups: a blood sausage and pork-cheek hash topped with a fried egg and served over warm corn kernels with a smattering of quinoa for crunch; and fideo with octopus and kielbasa, which played out like some strange, delicious tribute to a drunken, pasta-based version of paella. It was spicy glop, yes, but in the best sense.
In recent weeks the chicken liver chalupa has gone and been replaced by a duck version. I very much hope the old version returns soon; the chicken liver's richness somehow worked a little better than the duck's slight oiliness.
If you're feeling carnivorous, there are piles of fajitas, or you can sometimes order a quarter of a slow-roasted goat for the table. Frankly, the offerings at Bar Amá are a tad overwhelming: The menu has 45 to 60 dishes on any given day, not counting desserts.
Speaking of desserts, if you somehow managed to get through a whole meal without quite fathoming this kitchen's prowess, perhaps dining on only guacamole and, say, enchiladas, the desserts would let you know in no uncertain terms that this is a quality operation. The smooth, creamy, not-too-sweet pleasure of the burnt milk pudding or the subtle, tropical tang of the pineapple panna cotta might come as a welcome shock.
Bar Amá is as enjoyable a place to drink as it is to eat: There's a large stash of tequilas, mezcals and other liquors, a great beer selection and a list of (mainly tequila-based) cocktails that are just grown-up enough to be respectable and just fruity and amusing enough to be a whole lot of fun.
There are some service issues, though, particularly with large parties, and they have more to do with the whole “small plates meant to be shared” ethos than the actual servers. It's a nice idea, that sharing philosophy, but if six people each order some tacos and a salad for themselves, they probably do not mean to share those tacos with everyone at the table — and that means one order coming out 20 minutes after the others is a problem. “You see, dishes come out as they're ready, because everything is meant to be shared … ,” the waitress explained. Yes, we get the concept, but in this case it simply doesn't work.
In this respect and quite a few others, Bar Amá is still working itself out. Centeno is rearranging the kitchen stations; he is constantly tweaking the menu and obsessing over details — part of an effort to improve, yes, but also a way to keep himself, and the public, engaged and entertained.
But that's the thing about Bar Amá. No matter the kinks, you will be engaged. You will be entertained. And you may leave with a new respect for Tex-Mex food. Now that's an accomplishment.
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BAR AMÁ | 3 stars | 118 W. Fourth St., dwntwn. | (213) 687-8002 | bar-ama.com | Mon.-Thurs., 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. & 5:30-11 p.m.; Fri. & Sat., 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. & 5:30 p.m.-mid.; Sun., 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. & 5-10 p.m. | Entrees, $12-$30 | Full bar | Street and nearby paid lot parking