“Landlords are driving that place into the ground.”
These are the unsifted words of Chef Thomas Ortega—the man behind Amor y Tacos, Amorcito, and, pertinent to this conversation, Playa Amor—as he puts up his largest Long Beach brick-and-mortar and business name up for sale. And that business is one that has had the great, late Jonathan Gold say was “redefining what Mexican food represents.”
“[The landlords at The Marketplace Long Beach shopping center] have been promising a makeover and all these big-named tenants coming since I first moved opened Playa [in 2016],” Ortega said. “Nothing has changed. They took the environment out with the pond and instead put in a Jersey Mike’s. You can’t be surprised I am literally asking aloud, ‘WTF.'”
While Gold himself never placed Playa Amor on his cherished 101 Best Restaurants list, former L.A. Times food critic (and much missed food writer) Patricia Escárcega sang the spot’s praises in 2019 while adding it to that very list after Gold’s death: “Smart… Delicious cuisine smudging the line between high and low.”
The possibility of moving Playa was shot down, that while “other shopping centers in Long Beach have asked me to move there,” Ortega said, “we still have two years on our lease” with Marketplace.
I”ve written this before and it is worth repeating: Playa Amor is Chef Thomas Ortega’s very personal love letter to Mexico from the United States.
That dichotomy is (and for Playa, was) important in his food: Like many Mexican-Americans—too “pocho” for their Mexican relatives still living in the motherland and too Mexican for white Americans—his food simultaneously uplifted and reinterpreted Mexican food. Playa Amor is Ortega’s confession: He loves Mexico and the United States.
And it is a loss that we are watching it whither away.