Taste Taste

A Look Into Josef Centeno’s Menu at Bar Amá

Josef Centeno's shrimp broth <i>fideo</i> with kielbasa and octopus
Josef Centeno’s shrimp broth fideo with kielbasa and octopus Photo: Hadley Tomicki

Only five days into service and Joseph Centeno’s Bar Amá was packed last night, to the point where bodies were practically pushed back out of its Downtown doors. It would have been helpful to know some of these seat-less souls, as we were bee-lining it straight to the chef’s wood grilled cabrito, only to find the young goat is the most expensive item at $56, clearly sufficient for more than just one kid-lover. No matter, as Bar Amá’s menu is rich with Centeno’s amped-up engineering on Mexican and Tex-Mex home-cooking, its very name a tip of the sombrero to the three generations of women who cooked for the acclaimed Tejas-bred chef.

The dusky, wood-accented cantina, glowing with Christmas lights above a bar heavy with tequila, mescal, and sotol, would probably succeed at twice the size, accommodating even more tables loaded down with queso fundido, mashed-to-order molcajetes of guacamole, fried-shell puffy tacos, spicy blonde guero chiles with goat cheese, and dishes representing the spectrum between light (as in ceviches and the starters of sea salt and honey sweet potato, and crisp sunchokes with habanero, grapefruit, and pickled papas) and deep (slow-roasted pork, fajitas by the pound, burgers, and kebabs).

We skipped the sotol, ginger and pineapple-based fruit mashes, Mexican draft beer, and smoked ice-cube Old Fashioneds for one of Centeno’s newly introduced “Baco Pops,” the proprietary soda’s pineapple and cinnamon flavor hitting us with a super-sweet blast of canela and a comfortably cloying wave of pina. It tasted like a second cousin to Cactus Cooler, completely fabricated but strangely reminiscent of something slightly just a little natural.

Puffy taco with shrimp and jalapeno cream

We tucked into a puffy taco with grilled shrimp, its tortilla fat and airy with a flaky fried skin that resembles Indian poori with a heigher crisp that eases into a prolonged chew, a terrific texture to concentrate then release the nostalgic high-points of traditional toppings of avocado, a dust of queso panela, and a squiggly squirt of jalapeno cream. A simple dark chile relleno on a bed of shredded salad (soaking in an Italian vinaigrette one would expect at a neighborhood sub shop) hews closer to what we’ve eaten at home tables than the heavily battered, messy versions found at every other Mexican restaurant.

Centeno’s fideo was the true standout of our short and early Amá experience, featuring short strands of toasted vermicelli in a smoky, oil-streaked bowl stuffed with chopped kielbasa sausage and delicate, orchid-tinted charred octopus, a deep and sustained flavor coming from a back-beat of tomatoes and shrimp broth, texturally striking with the sweet nutty pop of pepitas and a snowfall of soft cheese.

Like The Kinks and White Stripes blasting over the sound system, Centeno is cranking the dial up on tradition and so far the demand is overwhelming. When patient and it’s possible to squeeze in, we look forward to exploring more of the Baco Mercat chef-owner’s personal, memory-evocative menu in the weeks to come. Until then, take a look at what Bar Amá is currently serving on its full menu, below.

Subject to change

Queso and Guacamole

Tex-Mex Queso 10
avocado, sour cream, salsa
add chorizo 2

Made-To-Order Guacamole 11
cilantro, lime, chile

Soup & Salad

Mondongo (Grandmas’ Menudo) 11
oxtail, tripe, hominy

Ama’s Charred Caesar 11
garlic, anchovy, chipotle, green olive

Nopales & Hearts Of Palm 10
epazote, cara cara, quesillo

Carrot, Onion & Chile Escabeche 7
queso fresco, orange, parsley

Jicama Salad 9
radish, cucumber, watercress, PG spice

Appetizers and Vegetables

Jamon De Cabeza 12
oregano, lime, salsa verde

Rancho Gordo “Borracho” Beans 7
beer, cilantro, bacon

Mom’s Mexican Fried Rice 6
zucchini, tomato, garlic, mushroom

Fideo With Octopus & Kielbasa 11
toasted vermicelli, shrimp broth, tomato, pepitas

Guero Peppers 9
goat cheese, citrus, charred onion

Crispy Chicharron 13
pork belly, lime, bus driver sauce

Whole-Roasted Sweet Potato 8
honey, butter, sea salt

Cauliflower & Cilantro Pesto 9
cashew, pine nut, lime

Kale and Zucchini Calabacita 8
tomato, garlic, cilantro

Crispy Sunchoke & Pickled Potatoes 9
habanero, grapefruit, sour cream

Lengua Chile Con Carne Frito Pie 11
fritos, crema, mulato chile

Ama’s Favorites

Chile Relleno 10
cheese, zucchini, mushroom

Enchiladas 9
carrot sofrito, queso fresco, potato

Mama’s Enchiladas 9
jack, cheddar, onion

Chalupa 10
refried black beans, cascabel, panel

Add Picadillo (Beef And Potato Sugo) to any favorite 3

Puffy Tacos

Carne Guisada 7
hierba santa chile sauce

Pork Barbacoa 7
tomatillo, cumin

Grilled Shrimp 7
smoked jalapeno cream

Cheesy Potato 7
chive sour cream

Chicken Fried Steak
Chicken fried steak or Chicken fried Chicken 18
black pepper, cream of wheat, hierba santa

Wood Grill

Whole-Roasted Huachinango (Snapper) 28
chile, lime, oregano

Half Chicken (Mary’s Farm) 15
ancho, lemon, oregano

1lb. Of Sizzling Fajitas (Serves 2-4)
With flour tortillas, charred onions, cilantro, cabbage
beef 30
pork 20
chicken 23
shrimp 29

Cabrito (Young Goat) 56
cole slaw, tomatillo salsa

Pork Loin 11
Beef tenders 12
mushroom, poblano, chile negro

Dad’s Burger 14
chipotle-mayo, yellow mustard, cheddar, fries

Slow-Roasted Pork 25
Molcajete pork shoulder, chile, lime

A Look Into Josef Centeno’s Menu at Bar Amá