Chef Thomas Ortega’s Playa Amor, the East Long Beach extension of his Amor family of restaurants, has been named one of the best restaurants in the region by the Los Angeles Times—and for good reason.
The list is a simultaneous upholding but definitive divergence from the list founded by Jonathan Gold, whose final No. 1 restaurant before he died—the mind-boggling concept restaurant Vespertine—now sits in dead last at No. 101.
And while Gold sung the praises of Ortega’s first step into a full sit-down experience, he perpetually left Long Beach off of his list while current Los Angeles critic Patricia Escárcega has lifted the local restaurant to the No. 59 spot.
Escárcega calls Ortega’s food “smart,” “delicious” and “smudging the line between high and low”—and I’ve long agreed.
Playa Amor, for me, is Chef Thomas Ortega’s very personal love letter to Mexico from the United States. That dichotomy is important in his food: Like many Mexican-Americans—too “pocho” for their Mexican relatives still living in the motherland and too Mexican for white Americans—his food simultaneously uplifts and reinterprets Mexican food. This is his confession: Ortega loves Mexico and the United States.
And like any great confession of love, it comes with challenges to the status quo-definition of love. This is modern, playful food for which Ortega is unapologetic.
His verison of pescado zarandeado, a fish that is slow-cooked over extremely hot coals, is proof that he can be playful but careful to the point of being respectfully referential: using Chilean sea bass instead of the more traditional snook, you’re offered a cleaner but direct descendant of the classic Sinaloan dish.
And don’t think he won’t slyly throw in a full-on wrench into what you think defines Mexican food. He, indeed, has a pasta dish: spaghetti is tossed with roasted New Mexican Hatch chiles cream sauce, garlic, and pecorino when the chiles are in season (which is right now, by the way).
Either way, whether you play it safe with Chamoy-glazed pork belly or short rib birria or become adventurous by trying a bowl of chapulines, grasshoppers that Ortega classically fries to a crisp and tosses with citruses and spices, or getting his Mexicano shrimp’n’grits with house-made hominy…
Long Beach should be honored to have a place that is even remotely like Playa Amor.
Perhaps most disheartening is the list’s exclusion of anything else, particularly Ellie’s and—I know this might seem outta the blue—as well as Phnom Penh Noodle Shack and El Pollo Imperial.
Ellie’s deserves it simply for quality and execution.
But the list has a particularly culture-centric vibe where it (wonderfully, I might add) shows off the region’s great cuisines thanks to immigrants. And missing are Cambodian and Peruvian food, two of which the best examples sit right here in Long Beach.
But, I digress…
Playa Amor is located at 6527 Pacific Coast Highway.
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