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Book Review: Amá

December 2019/January 2020 Issue
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Amá: A Modern Tex-Mex Kitchen
By Josef Centeno and Betty Hallock

Amá, the new book by downtown Los Angeles’s unofficial restaurant king, Josef Centeno, points the lens at Tex-Mex cuisine. It’s what he was raised on in San Antonio and what he now serves at his wildly popular restaurant Bar Amá in L.A. Sometimes derided by the culinary elite as inauthentic, Tex-Mex cuisine is, in fact, anything but. Tex-Mex is down-home Tejano cooking, a collection of signature dishes and traditions rooted centuries deep in the kitchens of Texans of Hispanic descent. In this book, Centeno celebrates it all: the real-deal messy Tex-Mex food that inspires him and that he prepares with love for his customers and his own family.

As a young man, Centeno turned his back on his native cuisine, thinking there was no place for it in a real chef ’s repertoire. Tex-Mex never left him, though, and with time, he rediscovered and embraced the cuisine that had nourished and nurtured four generations of Tejanos on both sides of his family.

Great Tex-Mex food is a perfect marriage of the flavors and spirit of Mexico and Texas. So it’s fitting that in this book, you’ll find the recipe for Refried Borracho Beans and Mexican red rice followed a few pages later by Chicken-Fried Steak with Bacon Gravy and Oven-Roasted Baby Back Ribs. Inventive, casual, irresistible, and sassy, Tex-Mex, at heart, is rancho food: the grilled and braised meat, the stews, the beans.

But Centeno’s Tex-Mex is not stuck in the past. He serves up recipes for the classics, to be sure. His Huevos Rancheros, for example, are just like what he ate as a kid in San Antonio. Likewise, Mom’s Green Enchiladas. But like many a 21st-century chef, he also borrows from the cuisines of the Middle East and beyond. Prime example: his Mexican Sriracha. Super spicy, it’s an essential sauce at Bar Amá, where it finds its way into shrimp fajitas and Broccolini torrada, as well as myriad salads, sautés, sides, and ceviches. In fact, pretty much every day, Centeno fuels his shifts at Bar Amá by eating grilled chicken in a house-made flour tortilla with Mexican Sriracha.

And that’s another thing about Tex-Mex food: there are certain dishes that a person could happily eat every day. Chances are you’ll  nd such a dish (or two) in this fantastic book.

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