Don’t Call This Chef’s Food ‘Mexican’ Cuisine

At Playa Amor, chef Thomas Ortega plays with the collision of traditional Mexican food, American comfort food, and the flavors of California.

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Mar 16 2016, 8:00pm

When you look at a given country's cuisine, its regional variations on ingredients, styles, cooking methods, and flavor profiles are as vast and varied as the people who make up its population. Cuisine is fluid and informed by the micro-cultures and experiences from which these people come. This is especially true when a cuisine is brought to a new place with a culture of its own. This new culture and its flavors and ingredients play a role in how that cuisine grows and changes, and also influences what gets left behind.

In the case of Mexican-American cuisine, this cultural exchange resulted in things like yellow cheese-topped enchilada platters—dishes that have become synonymous with Mexican cuisine in America but that are a far cry from what you would actually find south of the border.

Today, the newest evolution of Mexican cooking is vastly different from the combo platter or the inventively stylish plated renditions of traditional dishes. Noted early on by LA's resident Mexican food expert Bill Esparza to describe the innovative cuisine of chefs such as Wes Avila of Guerrilla Tacos, Eduardo Ruiz of Corazón y Miel, Ray Garcia of Broken Spanish, and Carlos Salgado of Taco Maria, this style of cooking was created by the collision of personal experience, traditional Mexican food, American comfort food, and the flavors and produce of California.

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Chef Thomas Ortega's famous mole tater tots. All photos by Carl Larsen.

It's not Mexican-American, and it's not regional. It's entirely its own thing—it's Alta California cuisine. And that distinction is important.

At Playa Amor, one of LA's newest Alta California, you will be served chips and salsa, but you will be done so begrudgingly. "You have no idea how much I wanted to not do this," chef Thomas Ortega explains to me, pointing to the offending basket on my table. He hates serving them but does so to appease the expectations he believes that diners have of a "Mexican restaurant." As a concession, the "chips" arrive to your table as one whole deep-fried corn tortilla that you can break up at your table as you please.

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The mango con chile cocktail.

"I call the restaurant 'Mexican' to get people in the door," Ortega tells me. "But the food is really Alta California. It's influenced by the food I grew up eating. It's really a kind of Pocho food," he says.

Playa Amor's menu is rife with dishes you would never find at your typical Mexican restaurant. From a stupid-good plate of charred Brussels sprouts with cotija, lime juice, red wine vinegar and a smoked jalapeño remoulade to the mole tot poutine Ortega is famous for: a crispy mound of tater tots covered in 22-ingredient mole negro, queso, crema, cilantro and onions. What is perhaps the most unexpected, however, is the green hatch chile spaghetti—a simple spaghetti dish with garlic cream, hatch chile, and pecorino, inspired by Ortega's childhood memories of his grandmother roasting chiles in the kitchen.

"My grandmother used to roast double X hot hatch chiles in the kitchen when I was growing up, and you'd walk in the house and you could feel it in the air, in your throat and stinging your eyes. And sometimes we'd just take the chiles straight from being roasted like that and put them on tortillas and eat it plain like that as an afterschool snack."

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Playa Amor's hatch chile spaghetti.

The simplicity and beautiful singularity of flavor in Ortega's spaghetti is truly striking, an Alta California dish on par with such dishes as Ray Garcia's clam and lardo taco or Wes Avila's urchin-covered ahi poke tostada.

It's the dishes like the mole tots and the spaghetti that highlight the way American comfort food and traditional Mexican food interact and make Alta California food so unique. It's a way of cooking and eating that stems from childhood memories and is exemplified by the Mexican-American quick-and-easy comfort food of bologna wrapped in a tortilla.

But on the flip-side, Ortega is also invoking traditional Mexican coastal cooking that's made with top-quality ingredients and a touch of California, such as his version of pescado zarandeado, a butterflied and grilled striped bass with cilantro, red onion, lemon, smoky chipotle, and garlic, served with corn tortillas; or his charred octopus with cauliflower puree, bright aji verde, cilantro, chile lime peanuts, and radish.

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Charred octopus with cauliflower puree, aji verde, cilantro, chile lime peanuts, and radish.

"It's hard sometimes," Ortega tells me of the diners who come in and are disappointed or angry because they are expecting more traditional Mexican food. (Which, funnily enough, usually means Mexican-Americans.)

But what makes California so special is that cuisines naturally change and evolve here. That's why it's important to mark the differences, not as discrepancies in authenticity but simply as changes or evolutions within a genre. That way, we can give burgeoning food movements the freedom to grow and adapt—not as Mexican, but as Alta California.