Bar Amá is the newest downtown Los Angeles venture from critically acclaimed Chef Josef Centeno. It's a Tex-Mex cantina of sorts, serving Centeno's updated Tex-Mex cuisine with a full bar dedicated to tequila and mezcal.
Bar Amá's tequila-heavy cocktail menu features a number of refreshing drinks meant to temper the spice (or in some cases, intensify that spice) in many of the restaurant's dishes. The brightly colored El Camino cocktail, for example, features blanco tequila, prickly pear puree and Damiana herbal liqueur with blanco tequila and fresh lime, for a vivid and floral result. Even mezcal, with heavy notes of smoke and spice, finds balance with lime juice and sugar in the Tahona Limon, Bar Amá's smoky version of a gin gimlet.
Pulling double-duty as both the General Manager and Bar Manager at Bar Amá is Daniel Flores, who was tasked with creating a cocktail menu to fit the specific flavors of Texas and Mexico.
"The food here is Tex-Mex, but it's the food Chef Centeno grew up with. It's his family recipes that have been re-invented and re-contextualized," said Flores. "So Chef Centeno wanted something that went along with the food, but he didn't want cocktails that were necessarily deep-thinkers."
If the name "Centeno" strikes a familiar chord with non-Angelenos, it's probably because Centeno's first restaurant, Bacö Mercat, was named as one of Bon Appetit's best new restaurants of 2012. Flores is also responsible for the drinks program at Bacö Mercat, where its selection of barrel-aged cocktails and shrub cocktails could be described as, well, "deep-thinkers".
At Bar Amá, if a customer merely requires a shot of agave spirit, a good bit of thinking may still be required considering the impressive list of small-batch tequilas and mezcal. In addition, Bar Amá also has a small selection of Sotol and Bacanora—two lesser-known Mexican spirits distilled from different types of agave.
"Sotol and Bacanora are kind of like the black sheep of the agave family," said Flores. "They're much less common than tequila." Because sotol and bacanora are made in a similar fashion to mezcal (the heart of the agave plant is roasted in a pit), they also have a distinct smokey aroma and flavor. And while a shot of tequila, mezcal, sotol, or bacanora would definitely suffice at Bar Amá, they all lend themselves to a bevy of bright, zippy cocktails.
"The drinks here are fun, refreshing, and have a lot of fresh juices," said Flores. "But there are no blended margaritas, no strawberry margaritas."
Despite the focus on agave-distilled alcohol, Bar Amá does indeed include other spirits, as well as Mexican beers and local craft beers.
"Although we do have a great selection of tequila and mezcal, we also have a small curated list of other liquors as well. So we can definitely still make a Manhattan, or a gin martini, or a vodka tonic, " said Flores. "And we'll make a margarita too if someone asks. But it'll be a margarita made in the classic sense with some great tequila and fresh citrus."
About the author: Marvin Gapultos is the author of the Filipino food blog, Burnt Lumpia. His first cookbook is due out in 2013. When he isn't cooking or writing about Filipino food, Marvin is usually enjoying a beer or cocktail, and thinking about what to eat with said beer or cocktail. You can follow him on Twitter @BurntLumpia.