[Photographs: Clay Larsen]
Have you ever had one of those nights where you walk into a bar in downtown Los Angeles, and wake up the next morning in San Antonio? You know, where the party starts off with a wall-high selection of tequilas and mezcal, and before you know it you’re up and bleary-eyed, staring into a plate of Tex Mex specialty puffy tacos in southeastern Texas?
Perhaps not, but you can recreate the experience right downtown with a back-to-back trip to Josef Centeno’s Bar Amá. The man behind Bäco Mercat (with their incredibly unique toron bäco sandwiches) has turned back to his roots with inspired Tex Mex fare. And what better flavors to soak up the debauchery that Bar Amá’s own libations will get you involved in. Most everything here is thick and fresh, dripping with juices and warming to the core. But when you’ve got a mezcal hangover and the harsh morning light is streaming through the plate glass windows, look to the puffy tacos($10 to $12)—they’re all you’ll need.
While San Antonio may be able to lay claim to the puffy taco as a regional specialty, it’s a wonderful thing to know that you don’t actually have to make the trip to enjoy them anymore. Chef Centeno’s version in the heart of downtown L.A. will do just fine, especially if you’re coming off a bender. Each order comes two to a plate, stacked high with chopped lettuce and tomatoes, plus a generous dusting of cojita cheese. The carne guisada is a surefire winner with the ‘please someone save me from this hangover’ crowd, packed as it is with stewed and spiced beef. The shredded final version is dropped warmly inside the airy taco shell.
A few words about that puffy shell. It is definitely thin and light, but not as delicate as you might imagine. If anything, the fried masa is chewy and sturdy, sort of like a carnival fried dough, without all the sugar and heaviness. The disks are fried in peanut oil, which helps to keep them from becoming saggy and sloppy. Depending on the level of your hangover, actually navigating the oversized taco might be a bit of a challenge, but if you can manage to find the middle of your face, just poke around until you find an open mouth and you should be all set.
Pork barbacoa is another worthy filling, a stewed bit of pig that emerges tender and strong with porky flavor. Tomatillo salsa and a few dashes of cumin add to the earthiness of this version, but you’d be hard-pressed to go wrong with either. After all, you’ve got stewed meats, fresh vegetables, cheese, salsa, avocado and a whole lot of fried masa dough. You could take a wrong turn at Albuquerque with ingredients like that and still end up in hangover helper heaven.