When you talk to Texas expatriates about the food they miss most from home, after a few grumbly sentences about Los Angeles chili, and barbecue, and coffee-shop chicken-fried steak, it comes down to the queso every time. I am not one of those writers who harps on authenticity, and when I have a shot or two of tequila in me, I can even admit the merits of Tex-Mex as a regional Mexican cuisine. Migas, the spicy Tex-Mex equivalent of chilaquiles, are among the greatest breakfast foods ever invented. My favorite cooking video ever is the clip of Texas director Robert Rodriguez making his breakfast tacos: "Get those flour tortillas, the ones you usually find at the store … and throw them in the trash."
But queso, not northern Mexican queso fundido but the all-American Texas stuff — that's something only a Texan could love, a shiny, runny, unholy brew that in its purest form begins and sometimes ends with a block of Velveeta and a can of Ro-Tel tomatoes, a dip with the exact texture of Campbell's cream of mushroom soup. I have rarely encountered anything called Mexican food that made me shudder, neither flash-fried Oaxacan grasshoppers nor the chimichangas at Disneyland, but there is something about queso that gives me the willies, and after my first encounter with the stuff at an Amarillo enchilada dive 20 years ago, I have been glad of the informal California embargo.
So when Josef Centeno announced that he was planning to open a Tex-Mex cantina near his wonderful Bäco Mercat downtown, called Bar Amá in homage to his mother and grandmother, I was expecting enchiladas and chicharrones, migas and the chile-braised beef called carne guisado, chiles rellenos and possibly even puffy tacos, a specialty of the chef's native San Antonio. I was not surprised to hear of a deep selection of tequilas and mezcals, including the super-rare mezcal from Piedra Almas whose distilling process somehow involves a rabbit. Fajitas did not seem out of the question.
But when I finally made it to the restaurant for the first time, a few minutes late because I was stuck in rush-hour traffic, I elbowed my way to the table to find my Houston-raised friend already halfway through his first bowl of queso, and I wasn't sure whether to be shocked that he had ordered the stuff or that the restaurant had it at all. I ordered a shot of 7 Leguas tequila and tentatively dipped a corner of a chip into the flaming-orange goo.
It was definitely queso, with that distinctive glossiness somewhere between melted plastic and Dodger Stadium nachos. If Centeno did use a blend of rare cheeses and lovingly roasted organic heirlooms instead of the Velveeta and Ro-Tel, he did a remarkable job of duplicating their essence. But it wasn't bad — not bad at all. I have never seen a bowl of tortilla chips disappear so fast.
Even if you know nothing about Tex-Mex cantinas, you probably could guess that they are dimly lighted, there is plenty to drink and they are loud — Bar Amá is powered by a soundtrack that includes Motorhead and ZZ Top. You will not be expecting the crisply roasted sweet potato, big around as a football, with a chunk of sweet butter melting in its depths, a delicate salad of jicama and cucumber, or a plate of head cheese with cilantro-intensive salsa verde that could as well be on the menu at Bestia, but they will not seem out of place. This is Centeno's place, and his restaurants, from Opus through Lazy Ox and Bäco Mercat, have always specialized in the inter-ethnic twist. Maybe roast sweet potatoes did play a part in his childhood.
Instead of menudo, there is mondongo, a more vegetable-intensive brand of the hominy soup, more popular in Central and South America than it is in Mexico, with lots of oregano, mountains of corn and scraps of oxtail supplementing the tripe to the point where the offal is barely discernible. (It will remind you more of pozole than of menudo.) There are a few offbeat ceviches, including one made with lightly fried scallops, quinoa berries and lime. When you long for the fideo your abuelita used to make, you're probably not contemplating anything like Centeno's ink-black sopa seca of noodles, octopus and chunks of kielbasa sausage, and the chiles rellenos stuffed with mushrooms and sautéed zucchini are kind of highbrow.
Still, Bar Amá is a high-volume Tex-Mex restaurant, and though the guero peppers are roasted and layered with goat cheese and citrus instead of being fried into cheesy poppers, nobody is deconstructing, molecularizing or techno-emotionalizing the food here. A green enchilada is a green enchilada, piled with ground-beef picadillo if you want it that way, distinguishable from the enchiladas on an average No. 2 Platter only by a certain purity of flavor, great handmade tortillas and an insistence on organic, humanely raised meats. The chicharrones don't reinvent the genre — they're chicharrones, made from heritage pork bellies and served with a homemade hot sauce Centeno calls "Bus Driver Sauce."
If you want fajitas, Bar Amá has those too, although Chili's fans may miss the red-hot sizzle platters — the mountain of grilled beef or shrimp arrives soundlessly. Soundless also is the molcajete, a stone vessel often heated to volcanic temperatures when used as serving bowls in Eastside Mexican restaurants, which arrives with its load of cabbage slaw and slow-roasted pork shoulder merely very warm.
As my Texas friend would be the first to tell you, Bar Amá may be the first place in the history of Los Angeles restaurants where it is possible to order a chicken-fried steak without embarrassment.
But there is the triumphant return of puffy tacos to Los Angeles — a taco made with a kind of fresh masa dough that inflates when you pass it through hot oil, before you kind of crimp it and pile it with pretty much anything, especially that spicy beef guisada. The dish is a specialty of San Antonio to the extent that the local minor league baseball team's mascot is a puffy taco, although there is a credible theory that the dish was first perfected around here. (The family credited with creating the dish at Ray's Drive-in in San Antonio apparently lived in Orange County for a number of years, and Arturo's Puffy Taco in Whittier opened at about the same time as the famous Henry's Puffy Tacos back in Texas. It's a complicated thing.)
Some people are complaining about Centeno's puffy tacos, mostly because of the price. He charges $11 for a plate of two with carne guisada, as opposed to the $7.50 or so you'd pay for a plate at Henry's, and at Bar Amá you have to pay extra for rice and beans. But Henry's isn't using Paso Prime beef or farmers market produce, and isn't paying downtown Los Angeles rents. And Centeno's puffy tacos may be even better than the originals, spicy and oily, crisp and chewy, gut-stretching yet somehow ethereal. You could not imagine a better chaser to a stiff shot of mezcal.
Josef Centeno revisits the Tex-Mex cuisine of his San Antonio childhood. There will be queso.
118 W. 4th St., Los Angeles, (213) 673-1480, bar-ama.com
Small dishes, $5-$13; puffy tacos, $10-$12 (for two); grilled meats, $17-$75.
11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. Mondays to Thursdays, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. to midnight Fridays and Saturdays. Credit cards accepted. Full bar. Street parking.