Ama Cocina reminds me of a Tumblr post I once came across, that made my GI-chronic-issue-having self very happy. The post talks about how seasoning food is more than just spicing it heavily. You have to make the spices work together in harmony to create layers of interesting flavors. Sometimes that means adding more seasoning, but sometimes it means balancing what’s there; not overloading the dish. Hotter isn’t always better; too much heavy spice can burn your mouth so much that the actual flavors of the other ingredients get lost.
Ama Cocina likes its spice, and has a lot of ingredients going on. Its interior could be described as “a higher-priced Chipotle,” although maybe that suggests a Spartan plainness. Ama Cocina’s decor is not Spartan. Like Chipotle, it’s industrial, but with a lot more decoration and wall art in the form of quasi-graffiti and (in the ladies’ room, I noticed) garbage cans and rear view mirrors repurposed as wastebaskets set into the wall, or extra mirrors on said wall. A large pop art-style mural of Frida Kahlo – every white hipster’s favorite Mexican – graces the lobby. You walk up a set of metal steps to get to the dining section of the space, dotted with small, square tables and chairs made of the stuff that cafeteria tables at my public high school were made from. The tables manage to never provide quite enough elbow room, for some reason.
I should say first that in its defense, Ama Cocina seems to specialize in small plates and fusion dishes. When you sit down, you get a carafe of water, and a little metal bowl of spicy popcorn for the table; no complimentary chips and salsa here. The dining experience is set up to promote the ordering of appetizer plates, entrees, and desserts, which generally works because the entrees like tacos are reasonably, even modestly sized, and if you get rice and beans with your taco plate, two is definitely enough. Their desserts are certainly interesting; we didn’t get any this time, but last time we tried a flan that was a menu special and might be made permanent, and churros doughnuts served in a paper bag, on the plate. The flan was a little too cheesecakey for my personal taste, as I recall, but the doughnuts were good, although the oil served alongside them was bland and seemed pointless.
Fusion dishes are fascinating to me, in case you didn’t know that already. On this menu, nacho pies, pizzas, combo platters, and appetizers involving yucca fries and various fruit ketchups and aiolis all called out to me with the promise of new, weird food to try, but I ordered a six-taco variety platter instead. I got the scallop tacos, the mole beef tacos, and the meat lover tacos with rice and beans…and I should have just gotten the cactus fries, two meat lover tacos, and more churros doughnuts for my trouble instead.
Our guacamole and chips for the table were good – the chips are either homemade or so convincing it blows my mind, crisp and fresh-tasting and a little buttery, and the mild guacamole was creamy and flavorful (Bill Esparza says it’s supposed to be chunky, but I like it either way). I didn’t find my white wine sangria sweet enough (I should have gotten a margarita, but I didn’t want hard liquor; I was sleepy enough that day), but again, personal preference. Our appetizer of yucca fries was similarly tasty (our eyes were way bigger than our stomachs).
For me, the trouble began with the tacos, and given the popularity and ubiquitousness of tacos for the customers that Ama Cocina courts, that might be a problem. As I mentioned, I got the three-variety, six taco combo plate with rice and beans (like I said, eyes bigger than stomach). I ordered the scallop tacos, the meat lover tacos, and the mole beef tacos.
When my tacos came out, I tried the scallop taco first, and my mouth instantly began to burn. The menu online says the lightly-breaded, calamari-like scallops were covered in chayotte-cuke slaw and papaya-seed salsa, with something called mango-hab fire (is it a cooking technique? A condiment?). All I know is, they needed about half that heat. I hate to be a stereotypical white person with IBS here – I swear I like some spice in my Mexican food. But I couldn’t even taste the scallops, or pick out any particular flavors – my mouth was just overwhelmed by heat and a note of lime. Spices in general, whether they’re hot or aromatic or otherwise, should be used to bring out and compliment the flavors of the other ingredients, not mask them. Good flavor is a balance of many elements, not just making the dish as hot as you can. I ended up picking the scallops out of the taco with my fork and eating them after scraping off as much of the toppings as possible. I was still glad I’d ordered plain yellow rice with black beans as a side.
The other taco I had a problem with was the so-called “double-chocolate mole braised beef.” I wrote in my El Patron review that I missed the heyday of downtown Albany’s premier Mexican restaurant, El Mariachi, and one of the things I miss about it is its mole. My mother ordered their mole frequently, and I think as an adult I would appreciate it a lot more; I even liked it as a kid, even if I preferred a burrito in red sauce instead. I know there are different types of mole; I’ve only tasted the standard, brown, savory-chocolate kind as of this review. Still, I think I’m beginning to understand more how integral mole is to at least some Mexican regions’ cuisine and cultural history.
Ama Cocina’s mole taco does not, as far as I can tell, contain enough mole (if any) to warrant its title. I know I’m just starting out on the food critic path, and my palate is still incredibly unsophisticated, but I did not taste any mole in that taco. The beef came off like barbecue brisket in a typical American barbecue sauce – sweet, but without the richness or chocolate-savory notes of mole. I have no idea what Ama Cocina has actually wrought here, or whether I might have enjoyed it if I wasn’t expecting to taste my first mole in years, but it was truly disappointing for what I expected to get.
My favorite taco was the meat lover’s, and if I come back I might order it again, but let’s be real here – it’s hard to screw up anything “meat lover’s,” whether it’s pizza or tacos. Bacon was involved; so were potatoes. It helped that the spices didn’t overwhelm the meat, and that nobody promised me anything fancy that they couldn’t deliver, like a beef wellington taco (what would that even look like? I have no idea). It was also the only taco with crema on it, as far as I could see or taste. The scallop taco definitely needed some of that, or maybe avocado or even yucca, or even mild cheese – some creamy, calming note to soothe the third-degree burns in my mouth.
The rice and beans on the side were good but bland, although in this case I was just fine with that after the scallop tacos. However, one of my dining companions ordered an enchilada, which was supposed to come with rice and beans, and didn’t get it when the rest of us got our food; he had to ask twice. The plates generally came out haphazardly and not at once, and when I changed my order to include rice and beans, one of the servers tried to bring them out before any of us had gotten our entrees. Don’t get me wrong – our waitress was friendly and attentive. I blame the kitchen for the confusion, and I have to say, there were a few empty tables around us. The restaurant was not that full, so I’m not sure how sympathetic I feel for the kitchen being in the weeds.
Ama Cocina has some really ingenious dishes, and in an area like Albany, where good Mexican food is always in demand, they could do well, and in fact they seem to be. Good for them. But instead of making their menu the edgiest, I wish they would stop and learn how to actually handle it, and cook to perfection some of the ambitious recipes they’re trying to ‘update.’