Playa Amor Is Thomas Ortega’s Latest Mexican-American Restaurant Stunner

Chef Thomas Ortega’s seafood-centric sequel to his wonderful Amor Y Tacos in Cerritos is a smaller, more intimate affair. Since there’s barely any wall space for Ortega to put up posters of his favorite lucha libre legends, as he does at Amor Y Tacos, you could almost call it classier—romantic, even.

Inside Playa Amor—a cozy space behind a BevMo and tucked away in a sprawling shopping complex—people crowd around a horseshoe-shaped bar under twinkling-star lanterns that dangle from the ceiling. Nearly all the tables sit outside; because of the recent nippy weather, it’s tarped in plastic, but it overlooks a gurgling fountain in a man-made concrete pond.

When you settle in, a basket of fried tostada rounds arrives alongside a tingly salsa. And while the waiters always try to sell customers on the guacamole, the menu has more than a few of Amor Y Tacos’ greatest hits, and they’re much more interesting than the guac. There are the chile-and-lime-dusted crickets that taste like ultra-crisp, mini soft-shell crabs. And though they’re called a poutine here, Ortega’s famous mole tots—tater tots smothered by mole negro, dotted with queso and zigzagged in crema—are present, identical to the ones he cooks at Amor Y Tacos.

The elote is also irresistible, frosted in gobs of garlicky aioli and covered in chile and cotija. And when you bite into the juice-spurting whole ear of corn—one hand gripping the handle made by the bent-backward husk—its girth eclipses your face and its steam fogs your vision. It inevitably reminds you of the roasted corn you ate last summer at the OC Fair. But you get two ears for $7 here—far cheaper.

Though Playa Amor is a smaller restaurant, the menu is more expansive than its predecessor. In addition to the array of tacos, burritos and enchiladas, there’s a whole striped bass, butterflied from head to tail. Ortega roasts its flesh to the gorgeous golden brown of a crème brûlée, stopping just when the consistency of the meat becomes as wiggly as pudding. Spoon the fish onto a warm corn tortilla that came straight from the griddle, which is placed near the entrance and attended by a woman who presses and toasts all the tortillas for the restaurant from balls of masa.

The tortillas are wondrously pliant, and Ortega’s fish is amazing, but an appetizer of charred octopus confirms the chef has always been a master of all things seafood. The dish comes with two curlicue tentacles dribbled with aji verde and a cauliflower purée. It’s so tender it cuts with the blunt edge of a fork. As you chew, marvel in wonderment at how Ortega has managed to turn the usually rubbery critter into a substance so moist and fluffy it could pass as carnitas—easily the best thing you’ve tasted this year.

And what’s this? A split whole-roasted lobster brushed with butter? Shrimp and grits with fat Mexican white prawns as large as sausages? Who knew that the man who reveled in Doyer Dogs and Doritos chilaquiles had such command in taming Poseidon’s minions? But along with that, you notice that Ortega’s cooking is bigger, better and bolder here than at Amor Y Tacos.

The Harissa & Caramel Sticky Pork Spare Ribs is a mouthful to say—and even more of a mouthful to eat. The dish easily feeds three: Ortega gives you at least a pound of the boneless, falling-apart glazed pork meat that straddles the line between Southern barbecue ribs and osso bucco. It’s also served over heaps of esquites—a buttery, rich, Mexican approximation of creamed corn. Save for the esquites, you ask yourself, “Are these ribs even Mexican?” It doesn’t matter. The dish transcends any classification, belonging instead to a higher plane of existence along with anything Roy Choi makes. If it’s anything, it’s soulful and personal, almost as if it’s from a secret family recipe Ortega decided to finally share with the world.

Even more subversive is the New Mexico Green Hatch Chile Spaghetti. At first glance, it resembles a standard tangle of pasta slicked with butter and cheese. But the stinging heat of the Hatch chiles slowly bubbles up. And as the burn builds and builds until you finally have to reach for a napkin to dab your brow sweat, you realize it’s more Mexican than anything Rick Bayless has ever done.

Playa Amor, 6527 E. Pacific Coast Hwy., Long Beach, (562) 430-2667; Open Mon.-Thurs., 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-midnight; Sun., 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Dinner for two, $30-$60, food only. Full bar.

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