EL PASO, Texas (Destination Texas) — A rose is a rose is a rose.

But at Ambar, inside the historic The Plaza Hotel Pioneer Park in downtown El Paso, a taco is anything but just a taco. 

Chef Andres Padilla takes diners on a culinary odyssey with dishes inspired from regions throughout Mexico. 

“I like to keep one foot in the familiar, and one foot kind of a little bit further down, and bring people down the rabbit hole,” Padilla tells Destination Texas. 

Rabbit hole, indeed — but it all unfolds with some wild west flair. 

The culinary experience at Ambar starts the moment you walk into the hotel and are transported into what feels like a scene from a Cormac McCarthy novel. 

The aromas of rich leather and smokey mesquite coalesce with regionally-inspired artwork, lambent in the glow of art deco light fixtures and an amber wall housing a world class collection of agave spirits.

The menu is carefully-curated to celebrate the many different regions of Mexico and showcase centuries of history and migration that have brought the diner into the belly of the historic hotel, Ambar. 

Padilla is aware of the power of food to do more than just sustain the body. Food has the capacity to take us back to childhood memories from the scent of a freshly-made corn tortilla or the rush of flavors from a taco.

It’s almost like alchemy. 

To create a rich flavor profile, Padilla uses elements of salt, fat, acid, and heat that produce chemical reactions and a dynamic sensory experience. 

“Food has no borders,” says Padilla.

“Food tears down walls, because at the end of the day it’s so subjective. Flavor is flavor.”

According to Padilla, the menu is an expression of culture, tradition and progress.

“It focuses on the travels — not only limited to the region’s of Mexico — but I’ve been able to travel all over the world and have these food experiences, these culinary experiences,” says Padilla.

“All these things come together on our menu and we share it with our staff, we give them an opportunity to give feedback. It’s not just me — it’s our entire team. That’s what makes it so unique and so different.” 

Culinary creations include silky crema de chile verde soup, an extensive selection of citrus-soaked ceviches and marisquerias, a la carte tacos, fire-kissed tomahawk ribeye, and bone marrow. 

(The demand for Ambar’s grilled bone marrow with salsa macha and grilled bolillo is so high that Padilla goes through 150 pounds of bone marrow per week.) 

Ambar’s design features an open-kitchen layout where Padilla and his dedicated team of culinary technicians can witness the reactions of guests bite-by-bite. 

The open kitchen also creates an air of hospitality, like being welcomed into someone’s home and invited to share a meal. 

Diners are given the opportunity to engage with the cuisine as cultural guests. 

“We’re able to take people to a different place,” says Padilla. 

“Somehow, when you walk in as a guest of the hotel or Ambar, you walk in and everything behind that door goes away because you walk around and it’s hard to believe because you get lost in this altar-like showcase of beautiful tequilas at the bar. Then you walk over to the dining room and see this beautiful wood fire right in the middle of the dining room with a kitchen basically inside the dining room.”

The experience is transcendent with lingering scents of mesquite.

“You can be in Mexico City, you can be in Oaxaca, there’s all these things,” says Padilla.

Padilla says one of the most moving compliments he’s received is from a woman who said her meal stirred memories of being a little girl in her grandmother’s kitchen.  

To have that connection to memory and emotion is what Padilla says makes him most happy.

“People are having that experience and being taken to that place. Maybe they’ve never had that experience but now they have that curiosity,” he says.

“They want to go with you and take this tour of Mexico, and that’s amazing,” said Padilla, under the glow of the amber wall that — from a distance — is reminiscent of this region’s very distinct and inspirational charm. 

The last pale light in the West.