Originally published on the LA Weekly food blog, Squid Ink.
Josef Centeno dubbed his new restaurant “Bar Amá” in homage to the foods his mother, grandmother and great-grandmother cooked in his native San Antonio, Texas. (Amá is short for mamá.) But don’t expect a replica of their kitchens. “It’s the food I grew up with, but my version,” says the chef.
Bar Amá, focusing on Tex-Mex, is slated to open Sat., Dec. 15, just down the street from Centeno’s Bäco Mercat in downtown’s Old Bank District. At first, hours will be 6 to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and 5:30 p.m. to 12 a.m. Friday through Saturday.
Many scorn Tex-Mex for its “Macho Combos” and “Pancho Villa Platters.” But Centeno counters that the cuisine began simple and homey. His mom would make fideo soup from just water, beans, tomatoes and pasta, for instance. Restaurants later began adding gobs of sour cream, clumps of guacamole and gluey orange cheese — all heaped onto plates bigger than your head.
Centeno strives for innovation, not authenticity. His plan to infuse Tex-Mex with new influences should come as no surprise to fans of Bäco, or Centeno’s time at The Lazy Ox Canteen. Both restaurants blend global flavors covering Europe, Asia and Latin America. Centeno also aims to emphasize quality execution of Tex-Mex concepts.
Like the puffy taco — a deep fried tortilla that fluffs up as it absorbs oil, rather than forming into a hard shell. It is then crammed with meats, cheeses and guacamole — “really decadent,” says Centeno. He’ll make each to order in a fryer dedicated to just that purpose. Puffy tacos are rare outside of Texas, so they may be new to even the most zealous L.A. taco fans. (The only local purveyor is Arturo’s Puffy Tacos in Whittier.)
Angelenos might also not recognize sopaipilla — a fried pastry crust that can be served sweet (filled with honey and sugar) or savory (packed with meat and beans). Cabrito (baby goat) and chicken fried steak are menu highlights too. Tex-Mex staples include fajitas, chalupas, chile verde, and chile con carne. Also look for “Mom’s mole,” “Dad’s burger,” and “Grandma’s menudo.”
Complement your meal with tequila and mezcal, including sotol and bacanora varieties. Ginger agua fresca is available too, and “Bäco Pop” sodas in flavors such as tamarind-mango, pineapple-cinnamon, root beer-chocolate, and hibiscus.
As with Bäco, Centeno designed Bar Amá himself. The space, designed to seat 72 guests at 2,100 square feet, was previously Urban Noodle and an empty retail shop. Centeno mounted wood paneling and painted tiles along the walls to create a cozy, warm feel. Accents such as orange napkins, red chairs and multicolored string lights add pops of color. No sombreros or Pancho Villa posters — or combination plates — in sight.