Before the geometrically pleasing fruit salad at Amá•cita, before yellowtail ceviche with crisp threads of jicama, and roasted chicken zinged by pico de gallo, and fried tacos extracted from a mass of red cabbage, there is Josef Centeno’s queso to start the meal. Do not resist. If you attempt to order only guacamole to pair with the chips and salsa that land quickly on the table, servers will likely ask, “Do you want queso too?” The answer is yes.
This is alchemist’s queso, unlikely elements turned to molten gold. The mixture indeed includes Velveeta; processed cheese imparts a necessary smoothness, and Centeno knows better than to fight it. He also tinkers ingeniously. Cheddar and Monterey Jack add hearty tang and textural substance. The sneaky kicker is Brebirousse d’Argental, a bloomy rind Lyonnaise sheep’s milk cheese with restrained pungency and otherworldly creaminess. Its presence makes the queso comforting but not too comfortable.
The dip arrives in a small 1970s-era brown crock, with garnishes of crema, concentrated tomato salsa and crumbled ricotta salata for surprise flickers of sharpness. It is narcotic in its appeal, chip after submerged chip. The amazing thing about this stuff is how it retains its pull even as it starts to cool. The consistency doesn’t become plasticky or gluey like most queso; it stays silky, and the tiers of flavor keep revealing themselves. Even as other dishes begin filling the table, I find myself moving the queso back to the center of the action.
Centeno is a native of San Antonio, the nucleus of Tex-Mex cooking. He owns its traditions; he shows deference while also respectfully finding his own ways forward with the border cuisine. Enchiladas, chalupas, carne guisada and other expressions of his hometown foodways, with specific nods to his mother and grandmother, have been on delicious display at downtown’s Bar Amá since 2012. It’s part of Centeno’s conglomerate of nearby restaurants that include Bäco Mercat, where the many countries that touch the Mediterranean Sea provide primary inspiration, and the tiny tasting-menu wonder Orsa & Winston.
In 2017 Centeno extended his operations westward to downtown Culver City, opening fast-casual BäcoShop in an angular, 60-seat space perched on a dense intersection along Culver Boulevard. It served flatbread wraps and smart, punchy vegetable dishes, a refreshing alternative for a quick meal option. BäcoShop lasted two years. In July, Centeno rechristened the place Amá•cita, applying a fresh coat of paint, swapping in plusher chairs and hanging colorful banners of papel picado.
Bar Amá is California’s embassy for Tex-Mex, and as its consul general Centeno bridges cuisines like a true diplomat. Pimento cheese fills fried squash blossoms; reimagined elotes highlight grilled local baby corn. It’s Texan-Mexican food made by an adopted Angeleno fresh from wandering the farmers market. Centeno recently set down his ethos in words: Next month he publishes “Ama: A Modern Tex-Mex Kitchen,” written with former Times deputy Food editor Betty Hallock.
Amá•cita, wholly approachable, feels like a workshop where Centeno is working out new equations. If one can pin a label to the menu, it’s Tex-Cal-Mex.
Dishes under the vegetable section rotate so quickly the changes may not be reflected on the printed sheet. A duo of sliced pluot and melon needs little embellishment, sprinkled with feta and crunchy, seedy salsa seca for salt and contrast. Recently plums and cherry tomatoes huddled together, bound by green goddess dressing, pecorino and a sticky pepita crumble. Delicata squash heralds fall, drizzled with a smoky morita chile crema that burns hotter than you might expect.
I’ll mention dessert in the same breath because the selection mirrors the vegetables so clearly in its zealous seasonality and mutability. The most capricious sweet is built on raspado, the Mexican shaved ice. Centeno fashions an elegant little cup with a quenelle of whipped cream and often fresh fruit. I’ve observed the ice flavored with cherry, peach, plum and melon: It can change so fast the servers sometimes don’t know what they’re serving, but it doesn’t matter. It’s consistent in its pleasure.
Heartier main courses offer easy contentment. Roasted chicken rubbed with Sriracha tingles only mildly; it is served with pico de gallo and gently pickled carrots and strewn with some herbs and greens for SoCal prettiness. Grab one of the freshly made flour tortillas and inhale: earth and warmth. Chorizo-spiced Wagyu shows off the kitchen chops, cooked to a spot-on medium-rare. A variation on cochinita pibil matches soft hunks of pork with roasted pineapple, salsa verde and crema. The pork winningly appears at lunch as one of five toppings for a rice bowl; saucy carne guisada and a plump chile relleno oozing mozzarella are two other solid choices.
As for tacos, their presence seems carefully engineered to augment rather than dominate the menu. Evening brings fried tacos filled either with chicken or with vegetarian poblano polenta; the latter gushes satisfyingly against the crackling shell. During the day Centeno serves three breakfast tacos: borracho beans and cheese, chorizo and egg, potato and egg. (As with the fried tacos, I want to pluck the superfluous red cabbage off of them.) They are solace for those of us who might prefer breakfast tacos over breakfast burritos. Fighting words in Los Angeles, I know; let’s debate it over a michelada or, hell, a glass of orange wine while Amá•cita awaits its liquor license.
The taco really worth knowing about, though, is only on offer between 5 and 7 p.m., during the Super Nacho happy hour. Yes, the nachos are fun, stacked into a careful pyramid with enough queso, pureed salsa, crema and mashed avocado so that every chip leaves the pile adorned. The real object of desire is the puffed taco, a San Antonio specialty with family connections to Arturo’s Puffy Taco in Whittier.
Ask for the picadillo filling, though there is potato for the meat-free. A hot, collapsing cloud of masa cradles the spiced ground beef with shredded lettuce and grated cheddar. Down it as quickly as you can. It’s greasy and messy and magnificent.
Every cuisine evolves; I can roll with Centeno’s Tex-Cal-Mex advancements. Still, I most admire the dishes at Amá•cita that directly celebrate his roots. Enjoy the impeccable plum and melon salad, but don’t pass over the queso with a puffy taco or two.
Prices: Appetizers $9-$12, dinner entrees $10-$28, desserts $9.
Details: Credit cards accepted. Wine and beer (full liquor license pending). Street parking. Wheelchair accessible.
9552 Washington Blvd., Culver City, (424) 523-3300