Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Bar Amá (Los Angeles, CA)

Bar Ama Restaurant
118 W 4th St, Los Angeles, CA 90013
Tue 02/12/2013, 07:15p-09:40p

When we last encountered Josef Centeno, he was busy mixing things up at his well-received Bäco Mercat, which he opened to considerable fanfare in November 2011. Fast forward to last December, and we have the arrival of the Chef's newest venture, also situated in Downtown: Bar Amá. Modeled after a Tex-Mex cantina of sorts, the restaurants aims to serve elevated interpretations of the food that Centeno grew up with, inspired by the memories of the women who raised him (Amá translates to "lady" in Spanish).

Bar Ama Interior
Inside, things are set up in a similar fashion to his other restaurant, with the bar on one side and the dining room on the other, though it is a slightly warmer space.

Bar Ama Menu Bar Ama Drink Menu
The Bar Ama menu features most of your Tex-Mex favorites, some of which were drawn from Centeno family recipes, as well as a number of more globally-influenced plates. A full drink selection is also available, though the focus here is clearly on the tequilas and mezcals (it's probably the best collection I've seen). Click for larger versions.

Papitas Bravas
Papitas Bravas [$5.00] | bus driver sauce, pg spice
We began with a snack that may or may not have been inspired by the Spanish tapas dish of patatas bravas. It comprised potato chips basically, wonderfully crunchy ones with a mouth-tingling, multifaceted spice and savor. Amping things up even more was the Chef's "bus driver" sauce, a reworked version of serrano-based salsa arriera (mule driver's sauce).

Tahoma Limon Zapatista
Tahoma Limon [$12.00] | Mezcal Joven, Lime, Sugar
Zapatista [$12.00] | Bacanora Blanco, Serrano, Cilantro, Honey, Citrus
Cocktails ended up being the libations of choice this evening, and first on that list was the Tahoma Limon. It was sort of a classic presentation of mezcal, with the tartness of the citrus up front leading to smoky mezcal nuances on the midpalate, all while the sugar provided a sweet undercurrent to the drink. The Zapatista, on the other hand, featured the intensity of the bacanora (mezcal made in Sonora, basically) on the attack, which then led to an interplay of chile and honey flavors on the way to a long, lingering finish.

Chile Shrimp Ceviche
Chile Shrimp Ceviche [$12.00] | watercress, pickled red onion, lime
The ceviche arrived looking more like a salad, but all the expected flavors were there. The lime, naturally, gave the dish a sour edge, though the pomegranate did add some sweetness to the fray. I really appreciated the tanginess and crunch of the red onion as well, and the overarching heat in the dish was spot on, too. Overall, there was a pretty good balance of contrasting flavors here, though the texture on the shrimp could've been more satisfying (they were a bit limp).

Fideo w/Octopus & Kielbasa
Fideo w/Octopus & Kielbasa [$11.00] | vermicelli, shrimp broth, pepitas
A dish of fideo noodles, octopus, and sausage was a table favorite. I was a fan of the disparate textures of the two types of meat, as well as the more delicate, sweeter taste of the octopus versus the more in-your-face savor of kielbasa. This was a hearty, comforting dish, with a nice crunch from the pepitas.

Mom's Fried Rice
Mom's Fried Rice [$6.00] | zucchini, tomato, garlic
What we had here was a version of the arroz one typically associates with Tex-Mex cooking, but enhanced by the inclusion of some bright, tasty bits of vegetable that added a certain lightness to the dish.

Cauliflower & Cilantro Pesto
Cauliflower & Cilantro Pesto [$9.00] | cashew, pine nut, lime
Our server recommended this cauliflower dish, and she was right on the money. The light, aromatic pesto here worked brilliantly with the undertones of heat in the dish in providing a counterpoint to the vegetable, and I loved the crunch imparted by the nuts as well. Nice crispness on the cauliflower, too.

Crispy Chicharrón
Crispy Chicharrón [$13.00] | lime, bus driver sauce
The chicharrones were another highlight of the meal, displaying a beautiful mix of lean and fat, along with a wonderfully crisp crust and a boatload of pork-y savor. The lettuce was crucial in tempering the sheer heft of the belly, and I appreciated the finishing touch of spice imparted once again by that "bus driver" sauce.

Chingon [$12.00] | Tequila Reposado, Citrus, Orgeat, Benedictine, Orange
The Chingon was named after the Mexican slang term for "badass," and the drink almost lived up to its moniker, conveying a balanced mix of sweet and sour flavors over a base of boozy, slightly medicinal flavors.

Nana's Frito Pie
Nana's Frito Pie [$13.00] | lengua chile con carne, crema, mulato
And now, we come to what is perhaps Bar Ama's most infamous dish, the Southwestern classic of Frito pie, retooled and served in a skillet rather than the traditional foil bag. It was one of my favorites, giving us a rich, hearty base of flavors from the tongue chile and cheese, while the sour cream and mulato pepper offered up some contrast to the gravity of the meat. The various elements came together very nicely here, and I loved how the crunch of the Fritos was still intact. A bit slutty, but a must order nonetheless.

Mom's Green Enchiladas
Mom's Green Enchiladas [$12.00] | chicken, tomatillo, monterey jack
As much as I enjoyed the aforementioned pie, I thought the enchiladas were even better, probably the best I've had in fact. Though the ingredients here were par for the course, the execution was spot on, with the homey, hearty chicken melding perfectly with the housemade tortillas and cheese, all while the tomatillo, onion, and crema served as well-placed tempers in the dish.

Grilled Shrimp
Grilled Shrimp [$12.00] | jalapeno cream
If you come to Bar Ama, you'd be remiss if you didn't try the restaurant's puffy tacos, a preparation in which the tortillas are fried until they balloon up, ostensibly invented in the Chef's hometown of San Antonio. It wouldn't surprise me if these were better than the originals though, as they were delicious. The shrimp was on point, not overdone, but with a nice char and a slightly briny taste that worked beautifully with the taco's spicy, creamy dressing. Meanwhile, the avocado and veggies provided a lightness to the dish, and I loved the crunchy, yet supple shell as well.

Carne Guisada
Carne Guisada [$11.00] | hierba santa chile sauce
Out second set of puffy tacos were stuffed with carne guisada, basically stewed, shredded beef in a hoja santa-based sauce. Though it didn't quite reach the lofty level of the shrimp, this was delectable as well, with the meat displaying a great flavor and a delightfully complex tinge of heat, all while the avocado and lettuce served to complete the dish.

Banana Leaf Wrapped Rabbit Leg
Banana Leaf Wrapped Rabbit Leg [$24.00] | avocado, sesame, almond
Cooked falling-apart tender in a banana leaf, the rabbit leg showed off a certain richness and depth to it that paired superbly with the dish's nutty, almost mole-esque sauce. This was a heavy, hearty course, with the corn serving as a lovely accoutrement.

Chicken Fried Steak 'Kinda Traditional'
Chicken Fried Steak "Kinda Traditional" [$22.00] | cream of wheat, fried egg
Our final savory was the chicken fried steak. I was really looking forward to the dish, but it was, unfortunately, the weakest course of the evening. I wasn't enamored with the beef here, finding it on the tough side, and not particularly flavorful. I liked the taste and crispness of the batter, but it had a hard time adhering to the cutlet. On the plus side, the egg made sense here, and the onions counteracted the heft of the meat commendably. This had the potential to be a great dish, but just didn't work out.

Alice's Cooler Luz's Cooler
Alice's Cooler [$11.00] | Tequila Blanco, Lime, Simple Syrup, Hibiscus Soda
Luz's Cooler [$11.00] | Smith & Cross, White Rum, Pineapple-Canela, Velvet Falernum
We actually ordered these two cocktails earlier on in the meal, but they came out super late (right before dessert), and thus ended up being comped by our server (a nice touch). That's not to say, however, that we didn't drink them. Alice's Cooler was herb-y and sweet, with a soft, refreshing, feminine quality to it that made it go down easy. Luz's Cooler, on the other hand, was harder-edged, with a boozy base from the rum aptly playing off of the tangy, sweet-spice notes in the drink.

Bar Ama Dessert Menu
All of us were quite stuffed at this point, but dessert was still a must. Click for a larger version.

Leche Quemada (Burnt Milk) Pudding
Leche Quemada (Burnt Milk) Pudding [$9.00] | Graham Cracker, Fennel Pollen, Peanut, Almond
A dessert featuring leche quemada (cajeta or dulce de leche, basically) was rather fetching. The pudding itself I found intriguing, with a fruity, spicy sweetness to it that I couldn't quite put my finger on, perhaps due to the fennel pollen. The flavors really worked out well here, and I loved the crunch of the Graham cracker and peanut, too.

Coconut Tres Leches
Coconut Tres Leches [$8.00] | Coconut, Cream, Vanilla
We ended with Bar Ama's riff on the classic pastel de tres leches. This was a dense, but not overly heavy cake, with the sweetness of the milks pairing with the coconut to give the dessert an almost Southeast Asian character to it.

In the end, Centeno is putting out some fairly faithful reproductions of Tex-Mex cooking here. He's not reinventing the wheel, but rather, trying to bring out the best of the genre by using higher quality ingredients and more precise technique. Not counting the whiff with the CFS, the results are pretty promising, with the Chef's more focused, purer flavors undoubtedly elevating the oft-maligned cuisine. Indeed, the cooking's a bit rougher, and not as refined or nuanced as what he's done at Bäco Mercat or even Lazy Ox, but then again, it probably shouldn't be.


Blogger Fritos and Foie Gras said...

those puffy tacos look great! As always, beautiful photography!

Monday, March 04, 2013 3:38:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

daymn looks soooo good! im starving but i cant eat :'(

Wednesday, March 06, 2013 6:03:00 PM  
Blogger kevinEats said...

Sarah: Yeah, I'd go back just to try more of those tacos. Do they have those in New York?

Jipeng: Why can't you eat?

Saturday, March 09, 2013 6:44:00 PM  

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