It has to be the most outrageous Mexican dish in SoCal: Tater Tots smothered with Oaxacan mole, cheesy with panela and prettied up with red onion, cilantro and sour cream.
You'll find it at Amor y Tacos, new in Cerritos. But wait, there's more daffy food to make you smile, like chilaquiles that look conventional: red salsa, crema, queso fresco, cilantro and a sunnyside-up egg, but no corn tortillas. They've been replaced by Doritos. And a South East Dog dolled up with short rib chile colorado, queso fresco and a crackly hunk of chicharrón.
This junk food isn't junky, though. It's the work of a serious chef, Thomas Ortega of Ortega 120 in Redondo Beach. That restaurant is a partnership. Amor y Tacos is all his. It replaces a Chinese restaurant in a sprawling mall on South Street. The grand opening is this Saturday, Jan. 18.
“I wanted to be playful, different,” says Ortega, 35, who has family roots in Ciudad Juarez but grew up in Cerritos. Trained in French cuisine, he applies those standards to what he cooks, no matter how silly. “We play with organic. We do everything all natural,” he says.
That's why the Tater Tots aren't to be laughed at. The mole that he puts in is a Oaxacan coloradito, worked out with input from his grandmother and a Oaxacan prep cook. The 21 ingredients blend into a mole that's a contender for the best in town. “I hate it when people call it [mole] chocolate sauce,” he says. As a main dish, the coloradito comes over chicken braised in duck fat, a nod to his French skills.
Ortega says he's been influenced by the culinary revolution in Mexico City, but he's a revolutionary too, albeit a light-hearted one. He knows his Mexican stuff so well that he was invited twice to be a guest judge for Mexican cuisine on Hell's Kitchen.
His love for the cuisine may have inspired “amor” in the restaurant name. As for “tacos,” he does everything from the regulation carnitas, al pastor and carne asada tacos to the King Dragon, named for the Chinese restaurant that Amor y Tacos replaces. It's filled with spiced duck, crisp duck skin and spicy hoisin sauce, inspired by Peking duck. The wrap is a scallion flour tortilla that's a take on the Chinese green onion pancake. For other tacos, corn tortillas are made at a station by the entrance.
For fish tacos, Ortega fries true cod in a crunchy Modelo beer batter. Modelo also provides the tall glasses for big, juicy margaritas made with house-infused pineapple tequila. Other beers on the list include two from Mexicali and Clown Shoes' Chocolate Sombrero, an obvious choice to go with tacos. Ortega likes to play around with ingredients and recently tried infusing mezcal with roasted strawberries and jamaica.
There are just two desserts. One is a hefty mole ice cream sandwich. “I'm a big fan. I love mole,” Ortega says. The other is churros with salted cajeta.
Amor y Tacos is casual and fun, brightly decorated with flashy Mexican art. Here and there are whimsical skulls, a tribute to the Day of the Dead, Ortega says. Take a close look at the skull on the door, which appears on the menu, too. Designed like a Mexican paper cutout, it carries out the restaurant theme. The mouth is a taco.
Amor y Tacos: 13333 South St., Cerritos. (562) 860-2667.