Sheila and my partner both ordered lobsters -- hefty 1 1/2 -pounders, decently priced at $23 each. These are steamed, halved, and then grilled, just as they do them at Ortega's Patio. (This is a healthy improvement to the typical Baja version, wherein huge numbers of lobsters are split, deep-fried in lard, then refrigerated until somebody orders one -- at which point the lobster is grilled. When business is slow, this may occur some days after the initial larding.)
The lobster meat proved sweet and tender. Not having that lardy taste was a giant step up. Local spinies, however, are out of season until September, so the current crustaceans are purchased frozen, probably air-shipped from the Caribbean. They taste a few shades less vivid than fresh-caught, but handily beat the specimens at Rockin' Baja (see below).
My Kobe beef bistek turned out to be a skirt steak, a hardworking muscle that holds up the belly of the beast. Kobe or not, this cut isn't likely to be super-tender. The steak is grilled whole and sliced for serving, topped sparsely with diced mushrooms and beads of precious huitlacoche. It came rare, as ordered -- a real rarity when eating in Mexico, where "well done and then some" is more usual. The meat was chewy, with a beefy flavor, but if the menu hadn't said "Kobe," we'd never have guessed. Sam sampled a strip. "When I was here before," he said, "the steak was better." "Maybe they're cooking it on higher heat," my partner suggested. "Or it could be the effect of the second pomegranate margarita I had last time," Sam said.
Cheryl's grilled beef filet palitos (skewers) claimed no pedigree, and I had to agree: This was one lean beast. Cooked medium to Cheryl's order, the cubes were a hard chew, although livened with a slick of red chile ajo (garlic) sauce. "This could use more sauce," Cheryl said. The other two entrées, which we didn't try, are grilled mahi mahi in a roasted tomato "Veracruzan" sauce and grilled free-range chicken breast in green pipian sauce.
"Charro"-style pinto beans -- frijoles, not refries -- and red rice come with all entrées. The partly mashed beans, topped with a swirl of Mexican farmer cheese, were much as I remembered their cousins at the Original Ortega's, faintly sour, with a bitter aftertaste. (I didn't like them there, either.) The rice is routine taqueria grade.
The dessert list was unexpected: Unlike the menu at every single restaurant on the Baja Peninsula, Ortega's doesn't serve flan -- for which I rejoice. A tres leches cake resembles a Twinkie on steroids, with a strong condensed milk flavor to the custard. The alternative is a tall, airy chocolate layer cake with light chocolate frosting, plated on a pool of heavily sugared raspberry syrup. Both are decent but intensely sweet.
Despite small differences, a meal here is generally the same as eating at an Ortega's in Puerto Nuevo, but the lobster is actually better than most served in Lobster Village -- and you don't have to drive 60 miles to taste it
ORTEGA'S VS. ROCKIN' BAJA LOBSTER
Before Ortega's opened, San Diego already had its own homegrown Baja-style lobster houses, the Rockin' Baja Lobster group. My friends couldn't tell me much about the lobsters served there. "I went once and all I remember is drinking a lot," Cheryl said. As perhaps the last remaining Rockin' virgin in San Diego, I decided I had to see how it compared with newcomer Ortega's.
Rockin' Baja restaurants are franchises, so they're not identical. Shunning the rude and raucous Gaslamp location, and skipping the long drive to the original in Bonita, I headed for Old Town, where the restaurant is larger, quieter (at least in early evening), and offers free weeknight parking.
There were a lot of things I liked, starting with the spacious indoor-outdoor dining room, its handsome stone waterfall overrun by little brown birds. (The decor may be a deliberate imitation of Rosarito's charming El Nido restaurant.) I loved the salsa bar, which offers six varieties -- every one vivid with flavor -- plus hot-pickled carrots and a central ziggurat of a mysterious coral mousse. This tempting mound, made of sweetened whipped butter flecked with pimientos, was tragically delicious. I wanted to gobble a cupful, not merely an identifying teaspoon's worth.
My partner and I enjoyed the savory refried beans -- and even respected the red rice. And we were glad to find an appetizer sampler plate offering calamari, wings, lobster taquitos, guacamole and chips, plus two tasty dips -- thin, white, and dilly, and a thick, coral-colored Louis variation. But second thoughts arrived after first bites. The sampler items were savory but unconscionably salty. Their job is to rouse a desperate thirst: One bite is worth two beers. I gulped down two pricey specialty margaritas (about $9 each) in no time. (Significantly, one of the signature "Baja Buckets" is a bucket of beer -- a six-pack for the price of five singles. It's also telling that when our waitress returned on her rounds, she asked, "Refills?" before "Is everything all right?") The margaritas are a sweet-and-sour mix over a heap of ice, with a minimal quantity of tequila. Shaken or stirred, they're meant to be guzzled, not sipped.
Rockin' Baja cooks spiny lobster two ways. Their Puerto Nuevo style is split, fried in lard, and lightly grilled. Then there's steamed, non-grilled lobster, its cut surfaces sprinkled with a chili powder like Gebhart's. We tried both, and they were equally tough, dry, and unsavory. As we gnawed, we detected an off-taste -- probably freezer burn from too long a wait in the walk-in. Worse, a wormlike gray tube of crustacean intestine was disgustingly visible in one of the steamed halves.
The atmosphere is cool, and on weekends it's probably rocking. The food is palatable if you don't mind the salt OD. But Rockin' Baja's lobsters? Never -- nunca mas -- again!