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Amor Y Tacos' Thomas Ortega Wants to Take Over the Suburbs

Chef Thomas Ortega of Amor Y Tacos in Cerritos talks about surviving (and thriving) in the suburbs.

WonhoFrank Lee

Welcome to One Year In, a profile that features restaurants that are just now celebrating their first year's anniversary. Here are their struggles, accomplishments, and future plans.

Chef Thomas Ortega is loving the suburbs. For years, the Cerritos native traveled far and wide while building out his culinary resume, before landing in Redondo Beach with his now seven year old Ortega 120. But last November, Ortega decided to return to his roots south of the 91 in Cerritos, opening up Amor Y Tacos in a strip mall at the corner of South Street and Carmenita Road. It's proving to be a smart decision.

Between the bowls of mole tater tots and the Friday night DJ sessions with the Beat Junkies, Amor Y Tacos has become a neighborhood favorite. Eater sat down in Cerritos to talk about Ortega's willingness to forego L.A.'s bustling epicenter and the trials of running a small business anywhere.

So what made you want to put Amor Y Tacos out in Cerritos? My whole thing is kind of driven into the suburbs now, you know what I’m saying? There’s so much money in the suburbs. Nobody’s capitalizing on it. I’m born and raised here, and this whole cookie cutter, everything’s corporate — we’re all over it. Peoples’ palates have evolved past corporate America. People can taste the freshness. You can taste it when it’s made from scratch. That’s the people that I’m targeting. You don’t have to drive 45 minutes to L.A. anymore.

I wanted to give those people something that they don’t have. There’s no chef-driven restaurant in this general area. Of course there are those small mom and pop places, but nobody really has that farm-to-table approach that I try to give to my customers. And people love it.

Nobody really has that farm-to-table approach

Well, I’ll say this: we do get people who hate it, but it’s because they’re used to going to the corner Lucy’s Mexican spot or whatever, and getting food that’s covered in cheese. I feel that, I crave it too sometimes when I’m hung over. But it’s tough when people can’t distinguish the two. And it’s because they’re just not into food in the same way. People complain about selling three tacos for $10, but they have to put into play that this is full service, we’re making the tortillas by hand, all my produce is organic. People forget that, because they’re used to going and paying $1.25 for a street taco. And that is the one problem you run into, coming back to the suburbs.

Now that you’re one year in, have your customers started to get beyond that price point hurdle? People have adjusted to it. Really, I want people to come here and just recognize that it’s different, and that’s OK. It’s good. I don’t think the prices are crazy — it’s nothing compared to L.A. prices. I tell my management team that yeah, we may have ten bad reviews on Yelp, but we have hundreds of satisfied customers, too. On a busy night, we’re doing maybe 300-400 covers. Do that ratio of people we’ve served versus the people that have gone out of their way to give us a bad review. You can’t please everybody. I’ve never worked anywhere that you could.

How was that first day of business for you? It was reality, man. I’ve been fortunate enough to open up a lot of restaurants for other people, kinda on their dime, and when I did my other restaurant Ortega 120, that was a real reality check. We did really good, and we were killing it, and then all of a sudden the economy crashed. And we were like, oh shit.

Literally, I had payroll one week, and we were just crickets. I had to pay people that Monday, like $25,000, and we had maybe $500 in the bank. I was like, this is reality. This is what it’s like to be a business owner. And by the grace of God, Irene did a review, boom, right there in the L.A. Times, saying there’s nowhere by the beach to find more heartfelt cooking. And it blew the doors off. That night, then Friday and Saturday, I had more than enough to pay payroll Monday morning. There’s a God man, there really is.

Coming back here, there’s that relief that the economy is in a better place. The first night, seeing it busy, seeing all familiar faces, it enlightens you. You know what? You’re not a dick. People like you. So the first two days were people I knew, but that third day, it was packed and it was nobody that I knew. That’s when I really knew that the suburbs were looking for something like this.

That third day, it was packed and it was nobody that I knew

Everybody’s looking for something different. They’re over the El Torito’s, or their old local Mexican place. I mean, look at this little place. There’s an El Torito right across the way, and the president of El Torito came in and told me that they could feel the hit from us opening. It was impressive, to have him sit across the table from me and tell me that. It made me believe that we can really do this. So we’re going to take it until the wheels fall off.

Amor y Taco

I’d say so, if you’re doing 300 covers a night. 300 to 400, easily. On the weekends, I have some of my friends from the Beat Junkies that will come every other Friday or so, they’re from Cerritos too, and it gets crazy in here. We pull most of the tables and bar stools from that part of the restaurant and just set them up, and that’s it. And it’s not like people are getting buck wild, it’s more like a lounge. We’ll do a late night happy hour, something like $2.50 tacos, $5 margaritas. You can’t beat it. And you have to, because that’s what people want. They want a local watering hole that’s not a Buffalo Wild Wings, a BJ’s or whatever.

How wide is the spectrum of people you’re getting through the door? It’s pretty wide. Cerritos is a melting pot of cultures, man. And that’s one of the things that got me into food, because when I was a kid I’d go to my Chinese friend’s house, and they’re doing homemade dumplings. Then I’m going to my Korean friend’s house, and they’re making noodles, or my Indian friend’s house and eating curry. I was the kid that tried everything, I didn’t care. And they’d come to my house, and my grandmother was making chile con carne with homemade tortillas. It’s so cool.

So what does Amor Y Tacos look like a year from now? I think it’s going to be crazier. I want longer waits on the weekends. I want to be floating in here, because I’m on to the next spot, in Downey or whatever, building my brand. I want to be doing that next thing. Yeah, everyone’s doing modern Mexican right now, but I was doing it seven years ago. And it’s been done before me, but I was one of the few. So one of the advantages I have is that it’s in my blood, I’m a Chicano.

Everyone’s doing modern Mexican right now, but I was doing it seven years ago

When I was working in kitchens, the whole time, I told everybody that I was opening my own restaurant. I worked hard, but I was honest. I mean, that’s why I’m in this business. Why are you in it? Just because you love food, you want to cook for somebody else for your whole life? No way. You should want your own place, too.

Amor Y Taco 2

What is that next spot going to look like? It’s going to be like a finer diner, that’s kind of my concept. I want to go back to my background in cooking. Yeah, my roots are Mexican, but I don’t want to be cornered into that. I’ve had Ortega 120 seven years, Amor Y Tacos has been here over a year. I do still want to branch out more on the Mexican front, like put one of these in Downey. They’re one of those suburbs that’s high in demand. But we’ve got a lot of stuff working. I’m only human, I can only do so much with a wife and two kids.

Amor Y Tacos
13333 South St.
Cerritos, CA 90703
562-860-2667

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