On the Line: Thomas Ortega of Amor y Tacos, Part One

Last week, I offered the latest secret menu items from a lucha libre-themed spot in Cerritos known as Amor y Tacos. This week, I have the pleasure of sharing my interview with chef Thomas Ortega. He provides insight on all things tasty and creative, making for one delicious conversation.

What is your fascination with Oaxacan food?
It's a regional cuisine that is still being discovered with the Mexican culinary movement. There are so many parts of Mexico that have different flavor profiles with their respective dishes. Oaxacan isn't the typical ranchero, “farmer” style of cooking. A lot of Mexicans and Chicanos are still learning about Oaxacan, so aside from creating great dishes for my patrons, I also enjoy educating them about the versatility and immense flavor profiles from this particular region.

I'm also still learning more every day and have fun coming up with new combinations of flavors that I highlight on my specials menu. The food is also very indigenous with a heavy influence from the Native American people that tend to use flavors from the earth versus the farm (as seen in ranchero style). Oaxacan tends to use rich moles, herbs, complex foods, spices and aromatics.


What do you recommend for first-timers?
Anything but a burrito or enchiladas. I like to make customers venture away from the more familiar “Mexican” food and have them try something new. Ninety-nine percent of the time, they thank me for it. Plus, I'm opening their horizons on how flavorful and versatile Mexican cuisine is and can be.

Your earliest food memory.
When I was young, I instantly knew hatch chiles were in season because the smell of roasted chiles overwhelmed my grandmother's house as she roasted them over the gas stove. The closer we got to the kitchen, the more we gasped from the spicy, smoky air.

Your tequila selection is special. Did you have a hand in selecting it all, or does your bar manager just have good taste?
I pretty much chose everything on the back bar. As for tequila, I have been lucky enough to try most of the good ones on the market. My other restaurant, Ortega 120 in Redondo Beach, is known in LA as having one of the best tequila selections — more than 300 — as well as the best margarita in LA. So I have to know my stuff, and I don't mind the research either. [Smiles.] I took the ones I like to drink and put them on Amor's back bar. If you also notice, we have a great selection of whiskey as well. I'm also a big whiskey guy.

What is your beverage of choice?
My go-to beverage is probably a cold, Mexican beer. There's nothing like the crispness of a German-style lager, as this is the style of most Mexican beers. But don't get me wrong, I love me some tequila and whiskey, depending on the occasion.

Most frequently asked question(s) by guests?
“What part of Mexico are you from?” I am a proud Chicano born and raised in Los Angeles.
“What's your favorite thing on the menu?” Anything with my mole, but it's all good.

What can you tell us about Amor y Tacos, especially the 21-ingredient mole?
Amor y Tacos is me. It's creative and playful with authentic flavors. My mole was actually named by Los Angeles Magazine one of the best moles in Los Angeles. I somewhat owe it all to my lead prep, Lucy. She is from Oaxaca and turned my recipe into what it is. She says when I make it, “it's good,” but when she makes it, “it's better.” She says a better taste is based on how much love you put into it. She's right. That's the key to any recipe.

Favorite places to eat?
Anything new. My wife and I love to try new spots. My mind is always going, so R&D [research and development] of a potential new place of my own never leaves my mind. The newest spot we've tried and really liked is the Peruvian spot Eqeko in Santa Ana. It's very Ricardo Zarate. Everything has really good seasoning. A few items may have lacked some salt to my liking, but the food was excellent overall.

Your best recent food find:
I'm always on the search. But I had a mabo tofu ramen from Mentatsu in Costa Mesa, and it was pretty bomb!

What's the one thing people didn't tell you about working in a restaurant?
You need to give up about seven to 10 years or longer of your life and strictly dedicate it to the kitchen in order to have a decent knowledge of preparing yourself to open your own place. This means no birthdays, celebrating only a few holidays — depending on whether where you're working is open or not on those holidays — and, of course, no weekends off. There came a point in my life that all the people around me didn't even invite me to things because they didn't want me to feel bad because they knew I couldn't go.

How did the name of your restaurant come about?
I had been thinking of names for a while. Coincidentally, one day, my mom blurted it out, and it stuck with me. There's nothing that describes a Mexican-American family better than love and tacos.

Is there anything you'd like to learn how to make?
I'm trying to have more patience as I get older. With patience comes a new chapter in the kitchen of baking. I really want to get more into breads and pastries.

One food you can't live without:
I would have to go with pizza. There is nothing better to me than a good pie! I once flew to Arizona just for the day to eat at Pizzeria Bianco, and it was worth it. Locally, I really like Pizzeria Ortica. Their dough has the perfect char and chew.

Tell us about your culinary experience in OC and LA.
I have seen OC come a long way in the past 10 years with regard to building a more sophisticated palate. For instance, when I was running the line at the Grill at Pelican Hill more than 10 years ago — it was under the Four Seasons brand at the time — I would do plates with technique and style from what I had picked up in kitchens working in LA. But at that time, those plates would not be too popular with OC patrons because they were not familiar with the dish and would tend to not venture outside their comfort zone of ordering dishes they know. The adventurous foodie in OC severely lacked in those days. The dishes that tended to sell out were the more classic, more familiar plates on a nightly basis.

Fast forward to today, and you can see the palate of OC has evolved greatly, maybe even too fast. But this goes for all over the map, not just OC. More specifically, the restaurant experience has evolved to be more than just having beautiful ambiance and a mixology-tainted bar. A lot of people forget the most important aspects are the food and its execution, first and foremost. There are a number of hole-in-the-wall restaurants in SoCal that are amazing, and I would choose them over a fancy restaurant.

One stereotype about your industry, and whether it's true:
Chefs have a warped concept of time, which I find to be pretty accurate. One of the characteristics of a good chef involves impeccable timing of spot-on execution paired with getting plates out of the kitchen to hungry diners in a timely manner. What's interesting is that most kitchens don't have windows, and we always have our heads down working, so it involves some innate ability of timing. But outside of the kitchen, it's a different story. Chefs, like myself, like to chill and lose concept of time all together!

You're making breakfast; what are you having?
Chorizo and eggs for my wife and kids. For me, a fried egg sandwich or a veggie frittata. I'm trying to eat more health-consciously.

What would be your last meal on Earth?
My grandmother's chile Colorado with New Mexico chile and her handmade tortilla. When I was younger, she fed this to me a lot. I kinda took it for granted because she's too old to cook now.

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