It’s Friday night and the air is thick with Oaxacan mole. Pioneering turntablist DJ Rhettmatic, of the World Famous Beat Junkies, is busily working the fader between vintage sounds — ’90s rap and old school soul — while patrons grip tacos stuffed with short rib and burnt habanero cream. The windows are foggy, and someone has cleared enough floor space in the packed restaurant to breakdance where families sat eating only an hour before. At the bar, a chili-dusted Mexican lollipop rests atop a fresh mango cocktail, and you’d swear you were in the heart of some hotly tipped urban core, like Los Angeles’ bustling Arts District. But you couldn’t be farther from the truth, geographically speaking, without leaving L.A. County altogether.
“It’s suburbia,” says chef and restaurateur Tommy Ortega, 36, and he means it. His Amor Y Tacos kitchen and cantina is situated in Cerritos, a medium-sized burg (pop. 49,000) 20 miles southeast of the city, jammed up against the Orange County border and most famous for its sprawling auto mall — Jim Varney, a.k.a. rubber-faced goof Ernest P. Worrell, was its spokesman for a decade. What’s more, the restaurant is in a strip mall, an unlikely bastion of adventurous eating and farm-to-table philosophy nestled within a Ralphs shopping center complete with a UPS Store and a Subway.
This is where Ortega is from — he grew up a block away and rode his bike through this parking lot “millions of times” as a kid — but he’s no townie. The man’s earned his stripes on the line, working at culinary hotspots like Water Grill, Spago, Lucques, and Patina before founding his own beloved eatery, Ortega 120, in Redondo Beach seven years ago, and appearing (twice) as a guest judge alongside Gordon Ramsey on Hell’s Kitchen. Though nostalgia plays a part in his latest venture, he has a vision.
“I love L.A., but people shouldn’t have to jump in their cars, drive 45 minutes, fight traffic, and find parking, to eat good food,” Ortega says. “The median home value is $800,000 out here. People have money and they want to spend it. If they’re at Wood Ranch Grill, which is some corporate nonsense where the prefab entrees are all $20, why not come over here where the food costs less and makes you feel better?”
It’s also fun. In addition to the dozen or so nights hosted by various Beat Junkies so far (their co-founders went to high school with Ortega), there’s a playfulness to the menu. Though Ortega’s slow-braised pork belly served over a small mountain of off-cob elote might be the most succulent hunk of fatty meat you’ll find for under $15, you can’t pass up signature dishes like Mole Tots (all-American taters smothered in piquant sauce and queso) or the Doritos Chilaquiles, which are indeed a pile of salsa-steeped Doritos topped with a fried egg and the appropriate fixings.
“That’s my mother-in-law,” says Ortega. “She’s from Guadalajara and she makes the best authentic salsas, but I go over there and they’re popping bags of Doritos. My parents didn’t buy those when I was growing up, but I snuck them at my friends’ houses. I like the idea of these two cultures mixing at two of the furthest points possible.”
FritoLay product does seem out of place beneath flecks of organic cilantro, but the contrast works in terms of flavor and character. The restaurant doesn’t take itself too seriously (a respite from Ortega’s fine dining past) and such dishes seem tailor-made for a time when Instagram and Yelp are fueling epicurean exposure. Plus, they function as a nod to the surrounding ‘burbs, which offer a sometimes literal melting pot of Central American, East Asian, Indian, and Southern cuisine. To wit, for the Lunar New Year, Ortega offered a salt-and-pepper fish topped with mole verde.
Other cultural mash-ups have been less welcome, however. Walk into Amor Y Tacos today and you’ll see artwork representing Ortega’s youth — colorful sugar skulls, a painting of El Chapulín Colorado, enlarged photos of masked luchadores, and other images beamed in from childhood visits to his grandmother’s house. But one day marketing reps from a certain prominent beer brand came in offering an addition to the décor that could rightly rub a proud third-generation Chicano the wrong way.
“The Dos Equis guy?” asks Ortega, referring to the portrait of “The Most Interesting Man in the World” (played in television ads by actor Jonathan Goldsmith) hanging in the room marked Baño. “They brought him in here, like, ‘Here! Hang this up in your restaurant somewhere!’ I said, ‘Sure,’ then told my guys, ‘Put that in the bathroom.'”
He had other dubious visitors too — some higher-ups from El Torito, the California-based, Mexican restaurant chain found in so many suburbs, including Cerritos. They admitted their local branch took a hit when Amor Y Tacos opened, and expressed interest in hiring Ortega on to revamp their national program. He passed — “Why would I want to get involved with a dying brand?” — but took the compliment.
Now Ortega’s looking to expand his own empire with a rooftop diner in nearby Downey, home of the first Taco Bell. The sushi-inspired spot would offer a taco list ranging from cheap to luxe. As for a name, Ortega likes Barrio Amor, “neighborhood love.”
Chris Martins is a Los Angeles music, food, and culture journalist. He most recently served as Senior Writer and News Editor at SPIN, and is the former editor-in-chief of Filter.