Chef Josef Centeno lives and works in Los Angeles, which is perhaps not the most obvious place for a Tex-Mex restaurant. When he opened Bar Amá, cooking his interpretation of the food he grew up eating in San Antonio, he wasn’t seeking to score cool points: “I don’t know if anyone would call [Tex-Mex] a trending cuisine. In fact, some say the opposite,” he writes in his new cookbook, Amá: A Modern Tex-Mex Kitchen. Equal parts loving ode to his family and California-tinged recipes from his restaurant, Centeno’s book demonstrates that Tex-Mex is thriving in the twenty-first century.
Moving from Texas to New York and later California, Centeno says his original impulse was “to get as far away from where [I] came from as [I could].” He immersed himself in fine dining before eventually opening the critically acclaimed Spanish/Mediterranean restaurant Bäco Mercat in downtown Los Angeles. But he found himself craving home. “I wanted to do my version of Tex-Mex,” he says. “Not the version that was created when the commercialization of Tex-Mex and Mexican got twisted by different companies.”
So he returned home to immerse himself in the cuisine of San Antonio and the cooking of his family. The Centenos owned a chain of markets, once “the largest independent grocer in San Antonio,” so food has long been a central component of his life. Centeno interviewed his grandfather and mother, aunts and uncles. Surrounded by memories of his Amá—the restaurant’s namesake, his grandmother—he cooked fideo and borracho beans and flour tortillas. That led to the 2012 opening of Bar Amá.
“A lot of people dismiss Tex-Mex as not being ‘authentic,’” he says. “Tex-Mex has never claimed to be Mexican. It’s American regional cuisine. When I cook Tex-Mex, I’m honoring the struggle of the immigrants that settled [in Texas].” Centeno’s own family represents a diverse swath of Tex-Mex influences. His forebears arrived in San Antonio via Guanajuato in central Mexico, but also from Ireland, Germany, Poland, France, Spain, and rural northern Mexico. “Everybody ended up in San Antonio … I felt it was important to tell their story and to shed different light on Tex-Mex,” he says.
That’s not to say his cooking isn’t influenced by his California setting. For instance, he’s amped up the use of vegetables and works closely with local farms. Centeno also prepares a lot more seafood than you might find in the Tex-Mex of landlocked San Antonio. Yet, he says, the cuisine is ultimately about the classics.
Centeno waxes nostalgic about carne guisada in particular. “We used to get it at a donut shop on Fredericksburg [Road, in San Antonio]. I’d always get two carne guisada tacos and show up to school with hot sauce on my white school shirt,” he says. His interpretation of this classic Tex-Mex beef stew incorporates the classic flavors without twists. “The first time I tasted this recipe, it was mind-blowing because I just felt like I went back in time. I’ve gotten that with guests who come in. One person got teary-eyed because it took her back to her grandmother’s. To cook food that’s that powerful? To be able to recreate that experience? It’s an honor.”
Carne guisada is my “bowl of red,” except I never eat it in a bowl—always in a flour tortilla. Like chili con carne, this stewed beef is made with chunks of beef and dried chiles and spices, and it also contains tomatoes. But unlike chili con carne, it isn’t served with a bunch of other ingredients and garnishes. Tucked into a flour tortilla, it needs nothing else—just straight up carne guisada.
Serves 6 to 8
2 ancho chiles
4 tablespoons olive or avocado oil
2½ to 3 pounds boneless short rib, trimmed and cut into 1½-inch cubes
1 large onion, finely diced
½ teaspoon fine sea salt
5 garlic cloves, chopped
1 serrano chile, stemmed, seeded, and finely chopped
1 tablespoon dried Mexican oregano, preferably Oregano Indio
1½ teaspoons cumin seeds
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 fresh bay leaf, or 2 dried
Fresh black pepper
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3 cups beef broth
1 cup crushed San Marzano tomatoes
Using tongs, toast the ancho chiles over the open flame of a gas burner until slightly softened and fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes. Stem and seed the chiles, and tear them into pieces. Set aside.
Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a Dutch oven or another large heavy-bottom pot over medium-high heat. When the oil shimmers, add the beef, and brown it on all sides, 10 to 12 minutes.
Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil to the pot. When the oil is hot, add the onion and salt and cook over medium heat, scraping up the browned bits of meat at the bottom of the pot, until the onions are soft, about 5 minutes.
Add the garlic, serrano, oregano, cumin seeds, chili powder, bay leaf, and several grinds of black pepper, and cook until fragrant, 30 seconds.
Add the toasted chiles to the pot along with the flour, and stir until incorporated. Add the beef broth and tomatoes, and bring the mixture to a boil.
Reduce the heat to low and simmer, partly covered, stirring occasionally, until the meat is tender and the sauce is thickened, 2½ to 3 hours. Taste and adjust the salt. Store, covered, in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.
Reprinted from Amá: A Modern Tex-Mex Kitchen by Josef Centeno and Betty Hallock with permission by Chronicle Books, 2019.