As a region, we’re becoming dominated by, for lack of a better term, “upscale” Mexican cuisine, one harnessed by Mexican-American chefs inspired by the food renaissance in Mexico proper and a newfound pride in their own heritage. Ray Garcia of Broken Spanish and Carlos Salgado of Taco María immediately come to mind, each rock stars in their own right who defiantly took to change the assumption that Mexican food is cheap and always served with rice and refried beans.
Amorcito owner and Long Beach chef Thomas Ortega is different, playing on, if not outright owning the low-brow card, and he does it with such skill that it lands him near the same level as Garcia and Salgado without the $80 prix fixe brouhaha.
Amor y Tacos, his flagship restaurant, boasted its “Pocho cuisine,” as Ortega calls it. Pocho, a derogatory term given to Chicanx by Mexican natives for fleeing the motherland, is very much the semantic flip side of something more respectable. It is Ortega wittily noting that he is not here to fight for a Michelin star but, rather, create solid Mexican cuisine that is as much about comfort as it is complexity. Think tangy, complex chilaquiles made with, well, Doritos.
Then he took Pocho Cuisine to his next concept, his first Long Beach restaurant, Playa Amor (a restaurant that deservedly made my Best Of list). Again, it was with wit: Think tots, just tots covered with a chocolatey, peppery, smokey mole crafted with the love of a Oaxacan abuelita.
And when it comes to Amorcito, his latest incarnation in East Long Beach’s massive LBX complex, he not only returns to harnessing his Pocho powers but also gives Long Beach the taco shop it deserves.
Now, before I have empty margarita glasses thrown my way, let’s be clear about one thing: While Long Beach has some stand-outs—El Taco Loco has the best tripas taco in the vicinity while Cheko el Rey del Sarandeado creates a wonder with its smoked marlin taco—we don’t have the stuff of Boyle Heights, where taco culture is respected enough that every single space that serves tacos—every single one, from street carts to trucks to brick-and-mortars—has a scorching comal on hand because the tortillas are always made fresh since the taco, both poetically and literally, starts with the tortilla—not its filling; a fact Ortega lives by.Though not a taco shop, Playa Amor’s tacos were par none, offering Long Beach its first glimpse of taco heaven that is an equal blend of the talent of his Tortilla Lady, Maria Barraza from Sinaloa, as well as his cooking skills and kitchen. (His business partner at the Amor familia is his childhood best friend Todd Tsujioka while his managing partner and sidekick in the kitch is Jon-Erik Carpo, a man who worked under none other than culinary legends Guy Savoy and Joel Robuchon.)
But with Amorcito, Ortega’s focus on one of the greatest hand-held foods is intensified, honed and, per usual his aura, played with.
Take, for example, his gloriously complex Tepito Taco. An ode to the pig, carnitas is paired with slivers of cueritos—pickled pork skin—a generous chicharrón chip, and fries. The beiges of the pork and potatoes are sliced with bright greens and reds from two salsas and cilantro.
Ortega is paying homage to Mexico’s famed (and infamously dangerous) Tepito Market in Barrio Bravo. On a trip with food writer Bill Esparza—”I had the feeling he definitely had a hookup to keep us safe, y’know, because that place is truly crazy,” Ortega said—he discovered the beauty of fries in tacos and honoring the full pig.
“With every taco, you would get asked, ‘Papas?’ and they would throw fries in there,” Ortega said. “Then I met a taco man… Every morning, this guy would butcher a full pig and cook the whole damn thing. Then he’d asked you what parts you wanted. Some carnitas. Some cueritos. Some cheek.”
Ortega’s fond memory of muchas papas in Tepito has translated into a hefty offering of the humble stem vegetable at Amorcito.
His taquitos de papa are perfectly rolled, fried tortillas stuffed with a smooth blend of potatoes, mushrooms, and spinach—earthy, creamy, dream-worthy—drizzled with a bright green “gaucsalsa” and topped with a generous, tangy pile of spicy, pickled cabbage and onion. Throw on some cotija and you have a plate reserved for everyone’s inner child, all grown up.
You can order heaps of fries smothered in salsa verde, sour cream, and a queso-concoction that is as addicting as it is creamy. You can have that same heap of fries slathered with bright, rust-colored chunks of al pastor. Wonderfully charred, slightly sweet, I would urge you to let this perfect piece of pork shine in taco form but I wouldn’t judge you in the slightest if you were to enjoy them atop a mass of fried potatoes.
This is Pocho cuisine at its finest.
Ortega’s experience of his heritage—trips to Mexico City are common—mixed with his childhood in Cerritos—suburbia, sure, but filled to the brim with myriad cultures—are precisely what makes Amorcito special.
Chef Thomas Ortega is the humble-but-frank epitome of the L.A. Mexicano when it comes to food—and Amorcito, for both his kitchen family and his patrons, is his gift.
Amorcito is located at the Long Beach Exchange at 3991 N Lakewood Blvd. inside the complex’s Hangar extension.
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