Blending cultures and honoring immigrants through Tex-Mex cuisine

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Guacamole and tortilla chips. Photo credit: Renata Fuller

Chef Josef Centeno says one thing’s for sure about Tex-Mex: it’s inauthentic. He’s known for his modern interpretation of the cuisine at Bar Ama in downtown LA, and now Amacita in downtown Culver City. He’s also out with a new cookbook titled “Ama: A Modern Tex-Mex Kitchen.”

The cover of “Ama.” Photo credit: Chronicle Books

He tells Good Food that Ama is his great-great-grandmother, who was separated from her husband (Centeno’s great-great-grandfather) during the Mexican Revolution. “This was around 1918… They were enroute to somewhere, and the front of the train got bombed by the opposing the enemy. And they were separated… for like five years,” Centeno recalls. 

Centeno says that his great-great-grandmother and great-great-grandfather reconnected because Ama and her mother-in-law were street vendors who fried tacos at a train station: “Because she knew that if he was alive, and if he was going to come back, it was going to be through the train station.”

Keeping a family together and honoring them through food 

Centeno says his family members were all living in northern Mexico and running small businesses. Then war broke out and they lost everything, so they fled to Nuevo Laredo in Mexico and San Antonio in Texas, where they restarted their lives. 

“When I cook Tex-Mex, I'm honoring the struggle of all of these immigrants. Everyone who were rebuilding their lives were trying to recreate the food that they knew, using the ingredients at hand,” says Centeno. “That's how Tex-Mex was born. Tex-Mex has never claimed to be Mexican. It's an American regional cuisine that blends many, many different cultures and has tremendous amount of influence.”

Not your everyday enchiladas 


Ama’s enchiladas. Photo credit: Renata Fuller

Centeno loves his great-great-grandmother’s enchiladas. He says they’re not like the enchiladas most people are accustomed to: “It's not doused in red sauce or green sauce.... It was basically spooning over these chopped potatoes, onions, tomato and carrot on top of just warm corn tortilla with queso fresco. That's what I thought were enchiladas in the beginning.”

Carne Guisada
Serves 6 - 8


Carne guisada. Photo credit: Renata Fuller. Reprinted from “Ama” by Josef Centeno and Betty Hallock with permission by Chronicle Books, 2019

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.

Ingredients 

  • 2 ancho chiles
  • 4 Tbsp [60 ml] olive or avocado oil
  • 2 1/2 to 3 lb [1.2 to 1.4 kg] boneless short rib, trimmed and cut into 1 1/2 in [4 cm] cubes
  • 1 large onion, finely diced
  • 1/2 tsp fine sea salt
  • 5 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1 serrano chile, stemmed, seeded, and finely chopped
  • 1 Tbsp dried Mexican oregano, preferably Oregano Indio
  • 1 1/2 tsp cumin seeds
  • 1 tsp chile powder
  • 1 fresh bay leaf, or 2 dried
  • Fresh black pepper
  • 2 Tbsp all-purpose flour
  • 3 cups [720 ml] beef broth
  • 1 cup [340 g] crushed San Marzano tomatoes

Directions

-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 Tbsp 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 Tbsp 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, chile 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, 2 1/2 to 3 hours. Taste and adjust the salt. Store, covered, in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.


--Written by Amy Ta, produced by Nick Liao

Credits

Host:
Evan Kleiman

Producers:
Nick Liao, Joseph Stone, Laryl Garcia