The last attempt at bringing elevated Latin food to Long Beach was 2015's Padre, an ambitious concept from a former Playground sous chef, which unfortunately delivered over-salted lomo saltado, watery Portuguese paella and $6 tacos on flour tortillas so doughy they could have been pita bread.
It's a different story at Playa Amor, which opened Jan. 26 in the Marketplace shopping center on the far east side of town, near the border of Orange County. With a menu that includes chamoy-glazed pork belly, short-rib birria and a plate of charred octopus so good you'd think you were hanging with Javier Plascencia in Baja, Playa Amor means Long Beach finally has a modern Mexican contender.
This is the latest restaurant from Thomas Ortega, who in 2008 opened Ortega 120 in Redondo Beach and later Amor y Tacos in Cerritos, neighborhoods where “upscale Mexican” usually means splurging on the shrimp enchiladas at Acapulco. Ortega 120 offers traditional Mexican food made with high-quality ingredients, and Amor y Tacos has a more fusion-y bar-food menu, with mole tots and Doritos chilaquiles.
At Playa Amor, the classiest of the three, you'll find mostly seafood-focused Ortega inventions, along with the fancy burritos, tacos and enchiladas carried over from the other two spots.
On a recent visit, Playa Amor's resident tortilla maker was stationed next to the hostess stand, pressing balls of masa into flat discs and then tossing them onto a propane griddle. The 150-seat restaurant, which is split between a barlike area and a wraparound heated patio with a view of the Marketplace shopping center's man-made ponds, is staffed with friendly locals who seem genuinely stoked that their hometown now has the kind of place that serves pasilla chile–infused clam chowder.
The plate of tangy ceviche mixto (two heaping tostaditos per order) and the bowl of mole tater-tot poutine (enough for everyone in a large group to get a taste) make great starters. For a taste of Ortega's expanding modern Mexican abilities, there are dishes such as the aforementioned charred octopus — which rests atop a bed of pureed cauliflower on a plate dotted with swooshes and splotches of two kinds of aji sauce — and a not-too-spicy hatch-chili spaghetti topped with chunks of locally raised carne asada (Ortega says it's an old family recipe).
To share, there's the pescado zarandeado — two pounds of whole bass, butterflied, grilled and covered in a smoky chipotle sauce, served with rice, beans and tortillas — and a buttery, one-pound Maine lobster that's boiled, then sliced in half as they do them in the dreamy langosta-laden Baja beach town of Puerto Nuevo.
A cocktail menu had not been printed yet when we visited, but the lineup includes some favorites from Amor y Tacos, like the Mango con Chili, which is like a boozy mango agua fresca, and the Pura Sangre Margarita, an orange-and-pineapple-infused margarita served with a tamarind candy stick. Playa Amor original cocktails include a blood orange drink called El Chapo, made with Scotch and mezcal.
The restaurant also is the only spot around serving Inedit, a beer from chef Ferran Adria, brewed in collaboration with the Spanish brewery Damm. The light beer falls somewhere between a hefeweizen and a dry Belgian saison, and it paired well with Ortega's newest adventures in Mexican cooking.
Playa Amor, 6527 E. Pacific Coast Hwy., Long Beach; (562) 430-2667, facebook.com/playaamorLB.