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RESTAURANTS : FIRST LOOK

A taste of Mexico at the beach

July 17, 2008|S. Irene Virbila | Times Restaurant Critic

Mexican cooking doesn't get as much respect as it should in Southern California, at least in terms of formal restaurants. Taco trucks are generally where you find the best Mexican nosh. But now Thomas Ortega -- a veteran of the kitchens of Water Grill, Lucques and Patina -- and his friend Demi Stevens have opened an unusually appealing Mexican restaurant in Redondo Beach.

A trio of metal folk sculptures of musicians stand outside the doors of Ortega120, located right on PCH. Inside is a sprawling bar stocked with a stupendous array of premium tequila (and a flat-screen TV at the very back for anybody who wants to catch a game). The dining room is painted in bright Frida Kahlo colors, the walls hung with whimsical folk art from Mexico -- crucifixes, masks, carvings and Day of the Dead motifs. There's also an outdoor patio for catching the breeze while snacking on housemade chips and complex, smoky salsa.

The menu is very specific. Guacamole, for example, is made with Hass avocados, red onion, cilantro and lime juice. Chunky and delicious, it's here and then it's gone, gone, gone. Ortega also makes a killer version of queso fundido. That's a molten cheese dip made with Oaxacan cheese, housemade chorizo (when's the last time you saw housemade chorizo on a Mexican restaurant's menu?), mushrooms and spinach.

The tortillas are all made right there and you can taste the difference. The shrimp cocktail features meaty Mexican white shrimp in a wonderfully spicy sauce.

This is a chef who sources his ingredients carefully.

He's also got some modern takes on Mexican classics -- for example, a taco stuffed with sushi-grade ahi tuna, roasted corn, fresh mango and more. If you love tacos, go for the "Tour de Tacos," a platter of five different street-style (i.e., small) soft tacos -- al pastor, pollo, carne asada, shrimp and carnitas. At $17, given the quality of the ingredients, it's quite the bargain.

Platos principales (main courses) include a deliriously good lamb shank birria braised in a chile broth and served with garnishes and handmade tortillas. I wouldn't say no to the carnitas plate either, with pickled red onion and fluffy lime-scented rice. Or the mahi mahi in mole verde.

Just those few dishes are enough to get the idea that Ortega120 is a cut above. For diehard gringos, Ortega has even put a Kobe burger on the menu, with a Mexican twist that includes Ortega chiles and queso asadero, and a pan de leche bun. Smart -- and fun.

Polish off a meal here with an order of freshly made churros (squiggles of fried dough) with a chocolate dipping sauce. Somehow, I think I'll be back. There's certainly nowhere near the beach where you can find such heartfelt Mexican cooking.

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virbila@latimes.com

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ORTEGA120

WHERE: 1814 S. Pacific Coast Highway, Redondo Beach.

WHEN: Mon.-Thu., 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m.; Sun., 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.

PRICE: Appetizers, $6 to $14; salads and soups, $4 to $10; tacos (3 per order), $9 to $12; main courses, $10 to $19.50; desserts, $7.

INFO: (310) 792-4120; www.ortega120.com

ON THE WEB: For more photos, go to latimes.com/ortega120

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