I am constantly thrilled at the sight of a perfectly cooked lobster served with drawn butter. As far back as I can remember, this is a food that has fascinated me. It’s such a simple combination yet utterly luxurious. It’s something that works just as well in a fancy white-tablecloth restaurant as it does at a casual outdoor cantina on the beach.
Playa Amor is located somewhere between those two extremes, and the lobster is everything you dream it will be. The whole lobster, split down the middle, is served with two large red claws that have been cracked wide open for easy access.
Tortillas being cooked on a griddle a few yards away have already cloaked the restaurant’s patio with a seductive aroma, a powerful appetite stimulant further amplified by the Margarita I’m drinking, made with Clase Azul tequila.
I pluck a piece of lobster from its shell and wrap it snugly in one of those fresh, hot tortillas, then dunk it into the liquid butter and rush it to my lips, oblivious to the trail of butter that I’ve just dribbled across the table, a trail that will grow thicker over the next few minutes, mixed with alternating droplets of fire-roasted chili salsa. It reminds me of being at the beach in Mexico, carefree and satiated, except the lobster here is better than what’s usually served at the beach south of the border.
While I sense the ocean in the distance, all I can actually see from the patio is a small duck pond and an outdoor mall. Located at Marketplace Long Beach just across the Orange County line, this is chef Thomas Ortega’s third restaurant.
Ortega trained under top chefs in Los Angeles in the kitchens of Lucques, Spago and Patina, as well as at Newport Beach’s sorely missed Aubergine. The chef opened his first Mexican restaurant, Ortega 120, nearly eight years ago in Redondo Beach. His second restaurant is in Cerritos. If you connect the dots on the map, he’s clearly plotting a southward expansion, and I sincerely hope that’s a trend that continues, because Ortega is easily one of the best chefs of Mexican food in all of Southern California.
To distinguish itself from Ortega’s other restaurants, Playa Amor bills itself as a seafood kitchen. But I wouldn’t call it that. Yes, it does serve a whole roasted fish, which is wonderful. And it makes a couple of ceviches, which are very good. It fries excellent Baja-style fish tacos.
Octopus is tender and delicious, drizzled with green salsa and sprinkled with chili-lime peanuts. There’s also that lobster, of course. And mussels in a green mole. But there are just as many, if not more, wonderful dishes made with beef and pork, things like carnitas and carne asada but also harissa-glazed pork ribs served over a salad of Mexican street corn.
The slow-cooked pork slips off the bones with barely a nudge of a fork. The corn tastes like it was plucked from the field moments ago. A similar version of that corn is also available on the cob.
Picking a favorite dish here is excruciatingly difficult, but if you asked me after a couple of tequilas, I would probably blurt out the beef short rib birria.
When I think of birria, though, this is not what generally pops into my mind. The soul of Mexico is definitely present, but there’s an undeniable French refinement to Ortega’s birria. The slow-cooked beef itself is perfect, but it’s the accompanying broth that steals the show, a simple jus with very little color or weight yet highly charged with flavor.
That same birria as well as carnitas, carne asada, pork belly and more are also available as fillings for tacos, enchiladas and burritos, to say nothing of the enormous torta.
The menu at dinnertime is long and varied, almost overwhelmingly so, which is especially impressive given the tiny kitchen. The restaurant itself is petite, with only a few tables squeezed into a space that is taller than it is wide, with a handful of seats surrounding a horseshoe-shaped bar, and a dozen more patio tables.
It’s important to note, however, that the weekday lunch menu is far shorter and exponentially less exciting. I don’t want to discourage anyone from lunch. Just know that the choices will be far more limited. The menu switches over midafternoon, so if you like a very late lunch, you might get to order from the dinner menu. The weekend brunch menu looks a lot more like dinner, with terrific chilaquiles and a strikingly beautiful avocado toast thrown into the mix.
Rating: 2 1/2 stars
Where: Marketplace Long Beach (behind BevMo), 6527 E. Pacific Coast Highway
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 11:30 a.m.-midnight Fridays-Saturdays, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Sundays
Don’t miss: Roasted lobster, short rib birria, tacos, octopus, carnitas, Margaritas
What to skip: Rice pudding
Best place to sit: Patio
About the noise: Vibrant but comfortable
L.A. County health inspection: A
Cost: Small plates $7-15, large plates $14-$25
What the stars mean:
0 = poor, unacceptable
1 = fair, with some noteworthy qualities
2 = good, solid, above average
3 = excellent, memorable, well above norm
4 = world class, extraordinary in every detail
Reviews are based on multiple visits. Ratings reflect the reviewer’s overall reaction to food, ambiance and service
This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register. To view more of my work for the Register, check out the archives. I also invite you to follow me and join the conversation on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.