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Josef Centeno’s cooking is inspired by childhood nostalgia, as with so many of his chef peers.
But, like few, he isn’t beholden to his memories.
Bar Amà, Centeno’s new restaurant in Downtown, is a paean to his youth in San Antonio, Texas, and is named after his Puebla-born great-grandmother. The menu is littered with attributions: “Amà’s enchiladas,” “Dad’s burger” and “Mom’s Mexican fried rice.”
In reality, the inspiration is loose at best. Centeno has tweaked liberally where appropriate, creating a menu that shirks authenticity and is probably better for it.
Consider the puffy tacos ($7), a staple of his hometown. When Centeno went back to San Antonio for research, he realized that many of the puffy tacos he grew up eating weren’t great. The ones he serves at Bar Amà, on the contrary, are one-handed wonders, their swollen shells crispy and chewy, with crushed avocado and grated cheese capping an abundance of sloppy meat.
As for “Amà’s enchiladas”--rolled tortillas, onions, cheese and cilantro in a carrot sofrito--the dish is a casual amalgam based on his relatives’ memories, because Amà never wrote down the recipe. “I’m doing it how I imagine she might have,” Centeno says.
The mondongo, his grandmother’s Oaxacan version of menudo, is as tripe-filled and meaty as you’d imagine. But look closer--it’s also available in vegetarian form (the horror!), and is equally delicious as its carnivorous cousin.
Don’t tell Mom.