Near the confluence of the 5, 91, and 605 freeways, sits the suburban city of Cerritos, located in the exact center of the Southland in southeast Los Angeles County. Cerritos owes its name to the Spanish Rancho Los Cerritos and the Spaniard who named the area “little hills,” although no hills exist in the city today.
Cerritos was dairy land early in its history, as its original name, the City of Dairy Valley, reflected. In 1956, cows outnumbered the City’s 3,439 resident by nine to one. In 1967, the city’s name was changed to Cerritos, and soon after, it started its rapid transition to suburbs, with substantial residential, commercial and industrial development. Now, Cerritos, which is adjacent to Little India, has a state-of-the art performing arts center and a magical library, with an enormous aquarium and a children’s room with a dinosaur and lighthouse.
Cerritos also has Los Cerritos Center, the local mall, which is perpetually crowded by scores of families and teens. The mall seems to overshadow the culinary scene in Cerritos, and restaurants jockey for proximity to the shopping center. Largely dominated by mall culture, or the cult of the food court, Cerritos eateries are either middle of the road restaurant chains catering to the mall crowd, particularly families, or trendy Asian-inspired eateries and teahouses that appeal to a younger demographic. Because of the prominence of large food chains, innovation is only slowly gaining momentum in the city and just starting to influence the food scene. But some chef entrepreneurs are bravely paving the way and hoping that the suburbs are ready for the innovation they are serving up.
Amor Y Tacos
The first thing you may notice as you enter Amor Y Tacos, past the front door featuring their Day of the Dead skull logo with a taco for a mouth, is a tortilla station with someone making fresh tortillas by hand. The interior is painted in rich, warm colors and the walls feature large reproductions of film posters featuring famous luchadores and a painting of El Chapulín Colorado (the inspiration for the Simpson’s Bumblebee Man); there is leather, hand-stitched seating, low lighting and Day of the Dead-inspired art. The fare matches the décor, taking a playful approach to the execution of traditional Mexican dishes. Amor Y Taco’s chef and owner is Thomas Ortega, of Redondo Beach’s Ortega 120 fame. After incredible success with Ortega 120 and guest appearances on Hell’s Kitchen, Ortega decided to return to his roots and open a restaurant in his hometown of Cerritos, where chef-driven, farm-to-table establishments are scarce. The restaurant offers enchiladas, tacos, burritos, elote, chilaquiles, and even chapulines (fried grasshoppers), but each dish is filtered through Ortega’s unique vision, incorporating innovation, while maintaining authenticity. Signature dishes include Mole tots smothered in house-made, Oaxacan style, 21-ingredient mole sauce, crispy Tacos de mi abuela with a blend of Angus beef and chorizo, short rib tacos topped with pickled radish, and chilaquiles made with Doritos instead of corn tortillas. Amor Y Tacos serves aguas frescas, craft beers, wines, and sangrias, and the restaurant hosts Friday night DJ sessions with the Beat Junkies.
Amor y Tacos: 13333 South St., Cerritos, CA 90703, 562-860-2667.
Pier 76 Fish Grill
Langostino and lobster roll with candied bacon and chipotle-blue cheese sauce, sautéed black mussels over fries soaked in a lemon-wine broth, and smoked fish tacos with the fish brined overnight and then caramelized, with a tangerine-jalapeño salsa, are some of the not-so-standard fare at Pier 76 Fish Grill, founded by high school buddies, Christopher Krajacic and Michael Santos. With its emphasis on wild and sustainable seafood, fresh, local ingredients, and its artisanal approach of making everything in house from scratch, Pier 76 takes things up a few notches in Cerritos, just across the street from the mall. Old world peasant dishes and traditional techniques meet innovation here, with openness to local cultural influences and ingredients. Although the approach is creative and chef-driven, it’s not overwrought. The eatery is casual—you order at the register and the food is brought over to your table. Pier 76 features craft beer and wine, can be crowded on the weekends, and features an outdoor eating area with a fire pit. If you crave seafood, this is a must-go spot. If you kind of sort of like seafood, it’s also a must.
Pier 76 Fish Grill: 11265 183rd Street, Cerritos, CA 90703, (562) 402-1776.
If you’re looking for Asian-inspired late night eats and adult beverages, Umaya Lounge is the place to go in Cerritos. With its own twist on Asian culinary staples and comfort foods, Umaya Lounge serves up Ramen, Takoyaki (octopus meatballs), Oshi pork belly over rice, super hot and spicy Umaya chicken wings, mini gourmet sliders on Brioche buns, chicken and waffles, beer (some craft) and sake. Umaya’s brand of Ramen is Tonkotsu based—a thick, creamy broth made by simmering pork marrow bones—and served with scallions, kikurage (wood ear mushrooms), Menma (fermented bamboo shoots), fish cake, and ginger garlic paste, customizable with a ton of add-ins, like seasoned egg and pork belly. The service is laid back, attentive and friendly. There’s bar seating, tables and chairs, and leather benches and sofas to settle into, and dark wood interior furnishings give it a warm feel. But don’t come here if you want to have a quiet conversation. The music is loud and the atmosphere is bustling. Come here for the food, but also come here to have fun.
Umaya Lounge: 11318 South Street, Cerritos, CA 90703, (562) 924-4242.
King Shabu Shabu
A favorite destination for Shabu-shabu in the area, King Shabu Shabu offers Japanese style hot pot in a modern, immaculately clean interior with friendly service. Have your choice of salmon, mussels, shrimp, pork, scallops, five grades of premium beef, from Angus ribeye to wagyu, a combo or all veggie, with house-made goma (sesame & peanut) and ponzu dipping sauce. After the “swish-swish” of the meats and vegetables cooking in your pot and near the end of your meal, a tasty Japanese tsuyu soup base is brought to your table to combine with your broth and udon noodles. Be sure to bring your appetite. With large, two-dollar sakes, generous portions of meat and vegetables, and a second meal of udon soup, you’ll need it.
King Shabu Shabu: 11328 South Street, Cerritos, CA 90703, Phone number (562) 865-5016
For your local fix of Vietnamese fare, you can head over to the brand new Flavor Pho for a hot bowl of pho, cool vermicelli, or shaking beef. Small on the outside, but surprisingly roomy inside, the sunny dining area of Flavor Pho is comfortable and homey, as it the food and service. Everything here tastes fresh and clean, and portions are generous. The pho base is simple, but flavorful, and they’ll give you a bowl of it on the side if you order a rice dish like the shaking beef with sautéed onions, buttered rice, and a side salad. They offer Vietnamese Iced Coffee and Thai Iced tea drinks, with or without boba. Flavor Pho is worth the visit and a great addition to the usually narrow dining scene of Cerritos.
Flavor Pho: 11444 South Street, Cerritos, CA 90703, (562) 402-0909.