Amor y Tacos: For the Love of Mole
Photos by Jennifer Fedrizzi
Have you ever heard of "Mole Tots"? Yes, that's "mole," as in the legendary Mexican sauce made from more ingredients than you have fingers to count, plus tots, as in tater, the cafeteria staple you loved as a kid. Order it at Amor y Tacos in Cerritos, and you're served a fruit basket's worth of the cork-sized potato plugs, fried up crunchy and smothered in queso panela, shredded red onions, cilantro, sour cream, and the mole sauce that chef/owner Thomas Ortega makes with 21 different chiles and spices--a concoction so complex you'd think it less Mexican and more Google algorithm.
Ortega also uses the mole for a proper main entrée with chicken legs braised in duck fat, but as refined as that dish may be, you want this gut-bomb. Heavy, rich and messy, one order is sufficient as an entire dinner for two. Scoop up a forkful, and the cheese stretches as though a deep-dish pizza. Consume it quickly, while it's hot and gooey, and the crisp of the potatoes hasn't been dampened by the mole and sour cream. It's the kind of meal your heavy-drinking college roommate might make for himself to eat with beer--that is, if he were trained at California School of Culinary Arts in Pasadena, and then made a name for himself in Redondo Beach, where Ortega is the executive chef and partner at Ortega 120.
Before all that, Ortega went to high school in Cerritos, a city we write about maybe once every three years but have secret hopes that OC will annex someday. I've not been to Ortega 120, but I don't think I need to go. Ever since it opened a year ago, Amor y Tacos has always seemed as personal as a diary. Ortega offers a dish called Tacos de Mi Abuela, but also ahi poke tacos with wasabi crema he imported from the other restaurant. But what he does best here is show he knows Mexican cuisine and culture inside and out, yet he doesn't take it too seriously. Ortega offers a bowl of chapulines, the Oaxacan snack of crickets, crisp as mini-soft shell crabs and bursting with chile and lime, as well as a burger stuffed with a chile relleno and a Dodger dog that's described on the menu as a "Doyer Dog."
He even makes chilaquiles out of Doritos. "Yes, Doritos," it says on the menu--a two-worded declaration that the Frito-Lay chip does, in fact, have a place in his Mexican restaurant. The dish designed to use last night's chips is as substantial as lasagna, tasting only vaguely of nacho-cheese dust. He uses a few real leftover tortilla chips in it, too, topping it with a lacy fried egg with a still-wiggly yolk that bleeds all over.
The chips aren't the only junk-food ingredient he embraces. Ortega uses Mexican Coca-Cola to glaze slabs of slow-roasted pork belly. Since the pork can be somewhat tough at times, the dish turns out to be one of his weakest, but Ortega still plates it beautifully with a sweet potato purée, a fennel-arugula salad and roasted cherry tomatoes exploding with acidity--an alta cocina presentation I'd expect at Raya at the Ritz, but never for just $13.95. The enchiladas and burritos are even cheaper. But there's a reasonably priced steak best taken as the Mar y Tierra (surf and turf); it's an Angus skirt dry-aged 28 days that melts when eaten, served under a mess of arugula, alongside grilled Mexican shrimp, grilled squash, and lubricated by a mojo de ajo.
Right next to the entrance is a woman who turns balls of masa into tortillas, slapping the floppy disks onto a griddle until they puff up, tempting you to order at least a few tacos. The Tour de Taco is popular: The sampler of five includes short rib, tinga de pollo, carne asada, moist carnitas, and rajas con queso that congeals more rapidly than the time it takes to eat it. The tortillas are, of course, good and pillowy, but the best taco I had was that night's special, a crispy pork belly with watermelon and jicama stuffed into a mottled flour tortilla and topped with chicharrón, cotija and salsa verde.
Throughout the room, I saw gigantic head shots of Lucha Libre legends and a cartoon rendering of El Chapulín Colorado, the inspiration for The Simpsons' own Bumblebee Man, plus a reminder to folks to try the crickets. In another corner is a framed portrait of the Dos Equis guy. Nevermind that he's played by an American actor--Amor y Tacos is still . . . the Most Interesting Restaurant in Cerritos.
Amor y Tacos, 13333 South St., Cerritos, (562) 860-2667; amorytacos.com. Open Mon.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-1 a.m.; Sun, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Meal for two, $20-$40, food only. Full bar.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Orange County dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.