Unless you’re from Texas, few people in Los Angeles can accurately describe the regional cuisine known as “Tex-Mex.” For those who have never eaten it, the name sounds like some imaginative fusion of leftovers. A smoky BBQ burrito, perhaps. Maybe a fried butter quesadilla? Tex-Mex is jokingly misconstrued as an Americanized bastardization of Mexican food by the loud and proud Lone Star state. This is probably due to the prevalence of yellow cheese in many of its most popular dishes, from enchiladas to the notoriously gooey and addictive chili con queso—not cheese with Hormel, folks, but jalapenos and serranos. In reality, Tex-Mex is a culinary category unto itself, a subset of Mexican Food, like Cajun cuisine is to Southern Food. You’d probably never find decent crawfish étouffée in the soup section of a deep Southern home cooking diner off the interstate in Alabama, much like you’d never find signature Tex-Mex dishes on the menu of a Mexican restaurant in California. Tex-Mex is specific and difficult to replicate, and as any of the thousands of Texan transplants in Los Angeles will lament: There is no real Tex-Mex in Los Angeles.
Which is why five fellow Texans and I were so excited to try Bar Amá, chef Josef Centeno’s newest downtown venture with a menu broadly “inspired” and “interpreted” by the Tex-Mex his great-grandmother, grandmother, and mother made for him during his youth. Not only is Centeno a rising star on the L.A. culinary stage—his first restaurant Båco Mercat was recently named one of Bon Apetit’s best new restaurants of 2012—he’s a San Antonio native, which is generally considered to be the Mecca of Tex-Mex cuisine. We all had high hopes when we trekked downtown—a much shorter trip than flights home for the holidays—to quell our cravings. We figured that a diverse gang of native Texas transplants (like Centeno himself) would be best at establishing the accuracy of Bar Amá’s Tex-Mex, and how much of the menu had been left up to interpretation. Finally, a Texan in L.A. making Tex-Mex for Texans.
Below is a collective review I compiled after our meal. This will solely be about the food—despite being slammed that Friday night, Bar Amá’s service was top notch, its décor sublimely elegant, and its margaritas (as well as my Serrano-laden Zapatitas) need little more review than a thumbs up and maybe a few pistol blasts into the air. But you can get those other things anywhere in L.A.—you can’t get authentic Tex-Mex.
FIRST, A NOTE ABOUT BREAKFAST
While we were there for dinner—and couldn’t have the breakfast—the fact that a variety of breakfast tacos are even served is a great sign in terms of authenticity. While a few breakfast and brunch joints around L.A. have dipped their toes into the breakfast taco scene, Bar Amá is the first place any of us have seen that treat breakfast tacos like true Texans do, most synonymous with the way New Yorkers sell bagels or Bostonians sell donuts. There are many varieties; most people eat them in the mornings, and they are quick, cheap, and filling. Everything but the last part is here, but for now we’ll forgive the import tax. Migas are also included in the breakfast options, which is glorious, despite the mystifying addition of potato.
THE FIRST TROUBLING SIGN
No chips and salsa on the table while we wait for our food. We know, we know—this is not traditional when it comes to serving Mexican food. But this is Tex-Mex, and that salty, spicy bit of foreplay before the meal really begins is quintessential to the whole experience. The salsa is especially important before a true Tex-Mex meal, as each is entirely unique to the establishment and tends to set the tone for what’s to come. It’s a shame we can’t try Bar Amá’s “interpretation” of this.
We order guacamole, just to have something else to dip our chips into, but California does guacamole better than Texas. Queso, on the other hand, will usually get you a cup of semi-hard cheese that’ll shatter your chips if you order it in L.A. We all know this is one of the most important moments of the entire meal, because if Bar Amá can’t handle queso, then the culinary conquistador has no clothes, and we are suddenly paying way-to-much for well-adorned Mexican fusion food. Two beautiful bowls arrive and, upon first blush, it looks the right color of creamsicle orange. It’s liquid to the touch of the chip and remains liquid through much of the bowl. And it tastes—dare we say—better than the homemade queso from our game days, even from the one-time Texans-Only Queso competition held at the fratty meathead Hollywood bar Big Wangs, the results of which are still shrouded in controversy. We polish off both before the waiter can return, and if we weren’t so curious about the rest of the menu—and conscious of our health thanks to all that Left Wing California brainwashing—we might order ten more bowls of it and drink through last call.
CONFUSION ON THE MENU
While everything on the Southwestern quadrant of the menu looks interesting—from a massive bowl of menudo to salads with a potpourri of fun ingredients to appetizers that feel more like Mexican tapas—it’s nothing we’d ever expect on a Tex-Mex menu. But that’s fine, because we understand that any restaurant trying to stay in business in L.A. has to appeal to the Angeleno diner’s appetite for variety. It’s all about the other side of the menu where we find enchiladas and fajitas and… wait, what the fuck is chicken-fried steak doing here? That’s a Deep South food, and while it’s certainly served and is popular in Texas, there’s no Tex-Mex restaurant that serves it, unless it also doubles as a truck stop. Yet ironically, no one has a problem with the Dad’s Burger, the hamburger on the menu. Every authentic Tex-Mex joint we’ve ever eaten at actually had that All-American option, although no one at the table will admit to having ordered it.
THE SECOND TROUBLING SIGN
No mixed fajitas. Sizzling beef, chicken, pork, or shrimp fajitas can be ordered in the range of thirty bucks a pound. But you can’t mix the meats, which leaves the table in silent dystopia and the waiter just awkwardly muttering, “Yeah… sorry… sorry.” This seems counterintuitive—the essence of Tex-Mex, beginning with the name itself, is all about mixing.
THE CLASSICS TEST
We hit Amá’s favorites hard. These are the classics: the figurative meat and potatoes of Bar Amá’s Tex-Mex canon. Mom’s Green Enchiladas are spicy as hell and near perfect in their construction. The tangy tomatillo sauce is biting yet flavorful, the enchilada tortillas soft enough to cut with a fork yet rigid enough to hold together to be gobbled down before the rest of the forks can steal too much. The mole enchiladas are almost overpowering in flavor at first, but halfway through you’ve eased into exploring all they have to offer. The Chile Relleno is a savant from the start, the flavorful cashew cream and cotija melding perfectly around the zucchini and mushrooms stuffed inside. High marks on all fronts.
PUFFY TACO TIME
There are six puffy tacos on the menu and outside of Henry’s Puffy Tacos in San Antonio—which is obviously why Centeno has devoted a section to it on the menu—we’ve never seen puffy tacos in a Tex-Mex joint. And even though tacos have gone through a renaissance in recent years, there’s no fair reason to charge eleven bucks for two tacos, puffy, stuffed with tongue or otherwise.
Chicken and beef fajitas are tested, on separate trays, with the intention of mixing them ourselves, as we are a resourceful folk. We have a dream that one day Bar Amá will embrace the mixing of fajitas. Until then, we shall carry on, eating fajitas in our own way. The fresh tortillas that come with them are melt-in-your-mouth incredible. The lack of a tray of pico, lettuce, cheese, guac, sour cream, or the variety of other fixings that always comes with an order of fajitas anywhere is a tad presumptuous. The chicken would benefit greatly from that plate of extras, as it’s relatively dry and unremarkable. The beef needs nothing but your fingers, as it is delectable, but almost too tasty for fajita meat. With these fajitas, there is no middle ground.
After excellent Sopapillas and mixed reviews on the Trés Leches, we all huddle up on the meal as a whole. There’s no disputing the meal was well executed and we enjoyed ourselves, yet there’s an air of disappointment hanging. While we’re up for embracing new twists on what we know and love—hell, that’s why most of us came out to California in the first place—our collective culinary nostalgia went unsatisfied. While Cendeno’s Bar Amá delivers magnificently on a number of fronts, the overall menu felt tailored to the SoCal clientele: flashy, overthought, and a little all over the place. From a business perspective, this makes absolute sense, and because of it Bar Amá will probably be a hit. However, it’s no solution to the regional cuisine we Texans grew up eating, and while we debate our favorite Tex-Mex joints back home and divide up the four-hundred-dollar-plus check, I can’t help but feeling that the joke is on us.