The Distinguished Gourmand: Bar Amá

December 16, 2019
  • The Distinguished Gourmand: Bar Amá

I know you might find this hard to believe, but — somehow! — I was able to fix the insane technical glitches that have plagued this website for the past few months. If you are just now learning this (or assumed I was being lazy and not posting anymore), allow me to explain. Roughly six months ago I started seeing weird messages on the administrative side of the site. These messages pertained to “missing files,” or what I suppose were files that WordPress was looking for on my server that were not there. I don’t know if WordPress wasn’t in sync with the files associated with my WordPress Theme, or it was something else entirely, but there were definite problems on the back end. The guy who created my theme told me my site had been hacked, and it was my fault. WordPress told me it was a theme issue. My hosting service told me both could be responsible, and I should re-start from scratch. Ken and KT — mostly KT — were incredibly helpful as I tried to navigate this situation. In the end, I had to create a brand new database on my domain, freshly install the WordPress engine as if I was a new user, and hopefully import a backup of the blog that would completely restore 14 years of my posts and media files. This did-and-did-not work in various ways, until last week when I somehow got, like…99% of the way to a full restoration of the site. The archives will forever be a tiny bit fucked up, but at least I’ve regained the ability to compose and publish a new blog post. For almost a month if I tried to add a new post I could only type a title. The rest of the page was blank. All appears to be normal now. Fingers crossed. Hopefully, it won’t all go to shit when I click the “publish” button in a few minutes…

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After a several-month hiatus, Dinner Club For Day People reconvened last month at Bar Amá in downtown Los Angeles. Amá is part of what is colloquially referred to as “Centenoplex,” which alongside Amá Cita, Bäco Mercat, and Orsa & Winston make up the portfolio of chef Josef Centeno. Bar Amá is described by Chef Centeno’s thusly:

“Fideo and borracho beans with cilantro and pork belly simmering on the stove, menudo every Christmas and New Year’s, deviled egg salad between a butter toasted bolillo, and puffy tacos stuffed with lengua carnitas and crushed avocado and doused with pequin chile vinegar salsa. These are just some of the dishes that have inspired me—the food that I was nurtured with by the women who raised me. Bar Amá is my interpretation of their Tex-Mex.”

Our reservation was for 8:30 pm but due to a party of 8-12 people languishing over the remnants of their meal for an obscene amount of time, we were seated 45 minutes late. Halfway through our wait were provided with complimentary chips, guac, and queso. It was a nice gesture, but also super filling after the third bowl of chips. I wish someone in the FOH would have simply told the assholes taking up half the dining room that they needed the space, but I get it. No one likes to be the bad guy. In the end, only our party suffered, and we’re a bunch of martyrs anyway so we’re fine with suffering. When we were seated, the kitchen sent out a few more complimentary snacks. I also think the first round of margaritas were on the house. I cannot be certain because I downed like six or seven margaritas by the time the bill arrived. I just know it was way cheaper than I thought it would be. Thanks, Bar Amá, for taking care of us! As for the food…

Tex-Mex Queso (Queso, Creme, Salsa, Ricotta Salata). Once we were seated we were provided with even more chips and queso and guac. By this point, I think we were all a little aggravated and focused more on what to order than how the queso tasted. Those of you who know me should know that I rarely complain “I ate too much.” But there are a few food items over which I have no control. If you continue to drop plates of french fries in front of me, I will eat every last fry no matter how full I might be. The same goes for chips and salsa/queso/guac. I have no concept of what I am consuming or how much I have consumed. When I was a kid I could eat an entire box of Rice Krispies and drink a half-gallon of milk in a sitting if left alone for too long. Maybe it’s an OCD thing? I don’t like leaving leftovers on my plate so as long as there are chips in front of me I will eat them until the bowl is empty. Needless to say, I must have liked the chips and dips at Amá because I ate about 10 pounds worth.

 

Blistered Brussels Sprouts (Chipotle Crema, Salmorejo, Lime, Cotija, Escabeche, Herbs). We were also given complimentary orders of Brussels Sprouts at the start of the meal. These were a clear winner, and several people cited them as being one of the highlights of the meal. This might be because they were one of the few splashes of green on a table filled with meat and cheese in various combinations, but it could also be because they were just really, really good Sprouts.

 

Slow Roasted Wagyu Beef Belly (Salsa Verde, Baked Cotija, Radish, Herbs). This was a favorite of mine, Christine’s and David’s. It wasn’t much to look at, but it had a melt-in-your-mouth quality that I found surprising given the unassuming, understated plating. The radish performed admirably as a contrast to the fattiness and richness of the beef. If, by the way, you are noticing that none of these captions include my usual references to Dinner Club table conversations, it’s for a good reason. First, we were all a little grumpy about the 45-minute wait, so I didn’t bother to take any notes. Also, this meal was a month ago, and since the website was broken at the time I’m having to recall it from memory. I don’t have a very good memory. I drink a lot and have been told by multiple friends, girlfriends and family members that I need to do a better job of being “present.” As I tell my mother multiple times each year, I’m still a work in progress. Even at 36 years old. I’ll get there someday!

 

Bus Driver Wings (Avocado Crema, House-Made Ranch, Cabbage Slaw). I thought the wings were delicious. Alas, I’m deathly afraid of Ranch, so I could not get the full experience. Sitting here, thinking about wings, I’m trying to figure out who makes the best wings I’ve ever had. There are so many different styles to chose from. Yakitori places like Raku and Nanbankan are one thing, hot wings are another. I think I’m partial to the sticky sweet, Korean style wings Ben used to make. These wings were solid, and certainly closer to sticky wings than hot wings. In the overall scope of the meal, though, they were lost among some of the better plates.

 

Smoked Potato Taquitos (Cheese, Crema, Avocado Salsa, Cabbage, Radish). If you’re sensing a theme here, it’s that lots of these dishes came topped with some combination of Crema, Radish, Cheese, and Avocado. If something is going to be described — or named — “Smoky” or “Smoked,” I want the smoke to be the biggest and most present characteristic of the dish. I didn’t find that to be true of the taquitos, which was somewhat disappointing given my penchant for smoked foods/drinks. Does anyone remember El Atacor #11 on Figueroa? Man, I used to destroy their potato tacos while drinking my face off at Footsies. What I wouldn’t give for a potato taco that good right now. RIP, El Atacor #11.

 

Fideo & Octopus (Habanero, Paprika, Tomatillo, Pepitas, Cotija, Herbs). Another outstanding plate, this was definitely one of my favorite bites of the night. The octopus was cooked perfectly, the noodles served as a fantastic compliment… everything was well-balanced. I probably could have eaten a whole bowl by myself, but that would not be in keeping with the rules of Dinner Club. I definitely took a second serving, which I can’t say for some of the other dishes. That’s not to say the meal was bad, but the dishes I wanted to return to after my first bites were few and far between. Also, I was continually stuffing my face with chips from the minute we got them until I was dragged out the door at the end of the meal. I probably still have chip crumbs in the pockets of whatever pants I wore that night.

 

Mole Enchiladas (Mole, Monterey Jack, Cheddar, Queso Fresco, Almond, Crema). This was a hearty, comforting dish that I quite liked. When I think about the Bar Amá mission statement (or raison d’etre), plates like this are what come to mind. Hearty, rich, swimming in mole… served in a cast-iron skillet… it felt more like what you’d be served in someone’s house than at a restaurant. And it was super tasty. Along with the octopus, I would recommend this as one of your must-try dishes. I’m sure at this point in the meal the members of Dinner Club were arguing about something random, like the finale of LOST or a recent episode of Survivor.

 

Cochinita Pibil Quesadilla (Cheese, Pineapple, Guacamole, Quelites, Escabeche). I have to admit, I don’t think I got a bite of the quesadilla. I most assuredly do not remember a bite of pineapple at any point during the meal. It could be that this plate was served at the same time as another plate, or whoever was tasked with serving didn’t cut the ‘dilla into the proper amount of pieces…but this one slipped past me without my noticing. Sorry!

 

Lamb Birria (Tomato, Clove, Garlic). Oh. My. God. The birria was so damned good. It was probably the star of the meal for me. I’d rank it slightly above the octopus and the beef belly in terms of memorable bites. Rich, spicy, tender, it was everything you hope for in a good Birria. Worthy of celebration on its own, I’d say if you stop by Bar Amá (or make a reservation…) this should be on your must-try list. It turned out to be the perfect way to end our meal because it left a satisfying taste in our mouths. Also, according to my text exchange with Kelie we also ate some kind of meat on a house-made tortilla, but since I don’t remember what it was I’m not going to add it to my review of the meal. I’m sure it was fine. The picture looks like a lot of meat, cabbage, and avocado. It might have been the chalupa? Oh well, maybe next time!

I know I joked about the wait for a table a few times, but we really did enjoy our meal, and the staff was quite accommodating throughout the evening. It needs to be stated, though, that our annoyance about the 45-minute wait is entirely warranted. The eight members of Dinner Club are perfectly capable of waiting for a table if necessary. My issue with this particular experience is: A credit card is required to make a reservation at Bar Amá for parties of six or more. For every person in that party who does not show up, you are charged $15. We were eight people. If two of us were stuck in traffic and missed dinner, Bar Amá would have charged my credit card $30. If an establishment is going to be so bold as to state this policy upfront, you need to also make damned sure you uphold your end of the bargain. You want to threaten a party of eight with a no-show penalty? That’s fine. But the table needs to be ready when the party of eight arrives. End of rant.

Bar Amá also boasts a Super Nacho Hour menu, which looks awesome. I’ll be returning soon to try some of those nachos (and the Frito pie!) in the near future.

Lastly, Mark is the next Dinner Club member to pick a destination. Hopefully, 2020 will be filled with more regular Dinner Club meetings. Stay tuned!

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