INTRODUCTION

Bar Amá isn’t so much a bar as it is a neighborhood restaurant—a small, noisy, friendly Tex-Mex joint, not in Texas but in the center of downtown Los Angeles, next to an alley off of Fourth Street. Why Tex-Mex? I don’t know if anyone would call it a trending cuisine. In fact, some say the opposite. I’d turned my back on it once, too.

Born and raised in San Antonio, I was a fairly normal angsty kid who loved skateboarding and punk music and rejected almost everything else. I wanted to escape from Catholic school, private military academy, cotillion classes, even summer trips to the Gulf Coast—all the things my parents worked so hard to give me (I’m sorry for being an ingrate, Mom and Dad). I wanted to be a chef, left for New York, and never looked back at the queso.

Until one day I did. I had cooked for Michelin three-star chefs at restaurants in New York, San Francisco, and Santa Cruz—French haute cuisine, Japanese-influenced omakase, progressive Spanish tasting menus. When I opened my own first restaurant in Los Angeles, Bäco Mercat, I tapped into a sort of reimagined cuisine heavily influenced by the cooking of the Mediterranean—Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Moroccan, and Lebanese flavors, with a little Ethiopian and Asian, too.

But there was a kernel of a memory that was Tex-Mex. Maybe it had something to do with all the breakfast tacos and enchiladas and fajitas I loved to eat. So I went back to San Antonio, and I ate at all the old-school spots. But the tacos and queso and margaritas weren’t all that I was looking for. I realized there was another Tex-Mex, one that was connected to four generations of Tejanos on both sides of my family.

Joe Centeno Sr., my great-grandfather, had nothing when he arrived in San Antonio from northern Mexico, a doctor’s son who wanted to go his own way. But he and my great-grandmother eventually founded the first independent chain of Latino supermarkets in Texas. Before my family lost it all (the other side of the great American success story), I spent holidays at the ranch that Joe Sr. built. For big family get-togethers, there would be barbacoa and cabrito, borracho beans, my great-grandmother’s potato salad, and her homemade hot sauces.

On my mom’s side, my great-grandparents barely escaped the Mexican Revolution alive. They settled and stayed in San Antonio’s West Side neighborhood. There, everything revolved around my great-grandmother’s tiny kitchen. She was the legendary cook in my family, known for making a delicious meal from only a few ingredients. She was Amá.

I finally realized that I wanted to honor the food I grew up with: fideo and tomatoes with cilantro and pork belly simmering on the stove, spicy menudo every Christmas and New Year’s, egg salad between butter-toasted bolillos, and Tía Carmen’s flour tortillas filled with lengua carnitas and crushed avocado, and doused with pequín chile salsa. These are some of the dishes that have inspired me—the food that I was nurtured with by the people who raised me. Named for my great-grandmother, Bar Amá is my version of their Tex-Mex.

 

THE LIFE AND TIMES OF GABINA CERVANTES MARTINEZ

It’s a miracle that my great-grandmother, Gabina Cervantes Martinez, ever made it to San Antonio and lived to be nearly ninety years old. I always knew her as Amá. That’s what everyone called her, and to us it basically meant “boss lady.” When I was growing up, she was my family’s supreme matriarch, a living legend.

Amá met Eulojio Martinez, my Apá, in their hometown of Irapuato in the central state of Guanajuato, Mexico, in 1910. Eulojio already had been drafted to fight for federal forces in the Mexican Revolution, leaving behind his family’s bakery, butcher shop, and café. They married in 1913. Amá was barely a teenager, but her father—once mayor of the town—and mother figured it would be safer for their daughter to be married than to stay at home, at a time when kidnappings and worse weren’t uncommon. Apá was only a few years older.

Amá followed him as one of the war’s legions of soldaderas, women who fought and camped with the army. For the most part, she managed to stick with Apá, even when he was captured. This happened so many times during the war that later he often joked about whose side he fought on. If a soldier was asked at gunpoint, “Viva quien?” (“Long live who?”) and answered incorrectly, he was shot. Better to switch allegiances in a revolution that he felt had devolved into lawlessness than to be executed on the spot.

One of my uncles told me that at the Battle of Torréon, Apá had a cup of hot chocolate shot out of his hand. As a kid, that image stuck with me—it was like a scene from a cowboy movie. I guess that made it somehow relatable to a six-year-old who only knew the drag of chores and Catholic school and the bliss of watching cartoons. What did I understand of war and heartache?

In the middle of the war, Amá and Apá were traveling by rail across Mexico when their train rode over a bomb hidden beneath the tracks. (Soldiers were transported by boxcar, and women often rode separately, sometimes on top of the train—crazy.) The bomb detonated, and the train, which split in two, was attacked by enemy forces. In the chaos my great-grandparents were separated, and each feared that the other had been killed. Neither knew that the other had survived. Amá fled, and to make a living, she and her mother-in-law ended up making tacos and selling them to passengers at a train station in central Mexico.

Nearly two years later, Amá and Apá were reunited when she spotted him on the train platform. Fate! I think by then they already knew they had to leave Mexico. My mom, aunt, and uncles said Amá and Apá had always wanted to return to Guanajuato, but there wasn’t much left for them there. Nearly two million people died during the war, and hundreds of thousands were displaced. So Amá and her mother-in-law waited in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, near the U.S. border while Apá went to find work in the United States, first in Chicago and later in San Antonio.

As they had earlier in the war, Amá and her mother-in-law made and sold tacos and taquitos from a table at the train station. Amá figured that would be their reunion spot again—she would meet Apá there when he returned. After five years of separation and hardship (Amá never talked much about those years), including losing a daughter to whooping cough, they finally reached San Antonio together sometime around 1920. They settled in the West Side community that was home to others who had fled. This is where the story of my family in Texas starts, in the same neighborhood—a Mexican-American enclave since the 1700s—where San Antonio’s Tex-Mex cuisine emerged.

AMÁ’S WEST SIDE KITCHEN

The West Side is the barrio where Amá’s children—including my grandmother, Maria de la Luz Martinez (aka Nana)—grew up, a neighborhood of small family homes, bakeries, cafés, produce warehouses, packing plants, stockyards, and railroad depots.

Amá and Apá lived in a little aqua-trimmed house on Hazel Street, five blocks from the big produce market where truckloads of fruit and vegetables would arrive every morning for delivery to the city’s grocery stores. I mostly remember Amá in the kitchen. Sometimes she and Apá would watch lucha libre (wrestling) or telenovelas (soaps) on TV or sit on their plant-covered porch watching the world (the two also occasionally attended bullfights in Nuevo Laredo). But Amá was always certain that the minute visitors arrived, they were hungry. So we’d end up in the kitchen at her little Formica table with green vinyl–covered chairs.

Her stove was a two-burner-plus-a-plancha, and I don’t think the refrigerator was much bigger than a school locker. But it was like that small car with the implausible number of clowns—continuously full of fresh produce. Out would come corn, poblano chiles, yellow onions. This was partly because Apá owned and operated a vegetable stand at El Mercado, an outdoor plaza of shops and farmers’ market stalls built as a Works Progress Administration project in downtown San Antonio. My mom said she would visit when she was a tiny kid and sit on the scales.

Something was usually bubbling on Amá’s stove, refried beans or the start of her fideo. She didn’t particularly like spicy stuff, but Apá did. So she would pick pequín chiles, which they grew in their backyard; drop them into a molcajete (mortar) with some salt; and grind a rustic salsa.

Amá’s kitchen was a tiny theater for a kind of magic show, where with a few ingredients and a modest flurry, there would be this ta-da moment when she passed you a freshly rolled enchilada—just a little bit of cheese inside a tortilla she’d warmed in hot oil and topped with her sofrito, which was finely diced carrots and potatoes and a little bit of onion. She made tomato consommé and fideo, rolled her own tortillas, prepared her own salsas, and cooked with a lot of fresh vegetables—from the farmers’ market or her own yard.

This is the version of Tejano cooking that I grew up with—simple cooking that wasn’t authentically Mexican but not the melted-cheese-topped stuff people usually talk about when describing Tex-Mex. I have a photo of Amá in her seventies, standing by a stove of course, wearing a simple dress and an apron, because she was always wearing an apron. She was stocky, with white hair, glasses, and leathery skin. She looks both nurturing and formidable at the same time. That photo hangs in the kitchen at Bar Amá, a reminder of what Tex-Mex means to me.

 

TEX-MEX IN LOS ANGELES

Traditional Tex-Mex is rancho food—grilled or braised meats, stews, beans, chiles, and tortillas, especially flour tortillas (in my family, anyway). Beyond the queso and chili gravy, you might make out the rough outline of Mexico’s Norteño cuisine (especially the meats and flour tortillas). I grew up on a lot of what the rest of America ate, but also family dishes such as carne guisada, chiles rellenos, picadillo, calabacitas, migas, and fajitas. Also Ms. Miller’s BBQ, Luby’s Cafeteria for biscuits and gravy, and the original Cristian’s Tacos (RIP) for breakfast tacos. The Tex-Mex I love is soulful, fresh food.

Tex-Mex was largely dismissed by the culinary elite in the 1970s as inauthentic Mexican food. But that’s the point. The only thing authentic about Tex-Mex is that it isn’t authentic: It evolves and adapts. And Bar Áma is as much an L.A. restaurant as it is anything else. What’s on the menu revolves around produce from farmers’ markets and local meat and seafood, and a lot of the dishes might not be considered traditional Tex-Mex: escarole with watermelon radishes (page 117), slow-roasted beef belly (page 89), whole sea bream with cilantro chimichurri (page 107). But it is.

Part of the Bar Amá menu reflects Tex-Mex the way I remember it and family traditions that might otherwise have been lost. And hopefully we’re reclaiming the nachos and queso and margaritas of popular Tex-Mex from the cheapened versions proliferated by corporate chains. We make everything from scratch. All of the tortillas are made by hand at the restaurant. We source non-GMO masa. Our eggs come from a friend’s free-range chickens. We use heritage-breed pork and sustainably raised beef. It’s like the Tex-Mex of my West Side family before anybody called anything either Tex-Mex or organic.

Tex-Mex is diverse—with influences from the American South, Germany, Poland, and Morocco (thanks to immigrants by way of the Canary Islands). Our kitchen finds inspiration from regional Mexican cuisine and beyond. And because we’re in Los Angeles, we use a lot of local fruits and vegetables—broccolini, cauliflower, escarole, corn, heirloom tomatoes, stone fruit, gooseberries, sweet potatoes, jicama, squash blossoms. We even serve vegan queso.

There are some Tex-Mex dishes that I want to preserve because they’re comfort foods. But there is room for a new kind of Tex-Mex that continues to evolve and can thrive beyond Texas, beyond Los Angeles—anywhere.

A NOTE ON CHILES: I use a lot of them, fresh and dried. Often the fresh and dried versions of the same chile go by different names. An ancho chile, for example, is a dried poblano. But some chiles that are used fresh or dried go by the same name—for example, arbol and New Mexico chiles. In that case, I make it clear in the ingredients list which type you need.

 

Ama: A Modern Tex-Mex Kitchen