Ortega seems to be a common name for San Diego restaurateurs. There are four Ortega's restaurants around town, each independently owned. The newest is part of a loosely connected chain run by a member of the same Ortega family that pioneered (and still dominates) the bustling "Lobster Village" in the Baja fishing town of Puerto Nuevo.
In the early 1950s, the day-long road trip between Tijuana and Ensenada offered little in the way of stopping points aside from the Rosarito Beach Hotel and La Fonda. That was before a handful of fishermen from Jalisco's Lake Chapala decided to seek their fortune on the Baja coast, where they discovered a small cove south of Rosarito with fish and spiny lobsters aplenty. A roadside billboard advertising Newport cigarettes marked the spot, so the village that grew up there came to be called Newport. Over time, the name evolved into its Spanish translation, Puerto Nuevo, though there's no port at that spot under any name. (I did find a smelly beach.)
Fisherman Juan Ortega and his wife Petra saw an opportunity that was potentially more profitable than selling raw seafood. They and several neighbors decided to open their homes to hungry travelers motoring to Ensenada. The weekend crowds, looking for cheap feasts of local lobsters, soon grew so large that the sellers built restaurants to accommodate them. The town was nicknamed "Lobster Village" and grew to include today's 50-odd eateries. Not all the lobsters are local now, as demand far outstrips supply.
The Ortegas begat ten sons, who (at last count) begat five restaurants in Puerto Nuevo and two more in Rosarito. Their youngest son, Juan Carlos Ortega, owns 13-year-old Ortega's Patio in Lobster Village. Today, he lives in downtown San Diego. When he got the idea to open the first Ortega's north of the border, he asked his friend and neighbor, John Castro Haugland, to come in as co-owner. John -- a ten-year veteran San Diego cop -- was happy to oblige. "It's a huge switch," he says, "and I love it! Sure, the hours are long, but compared to the stress of being out in the streets -- everything life and death?"
The restaurant occupies a corner building (a former clothing store called the Closet) across the street from Hamburger Mary's. The colorful interior shows off a peaked pine-beam ceiling, a kitchen visible behind a partial-glass partition, Spanish-style lamps and chairs (most made of wrought iron with straw seats, but some of leather-over-lath), and tables covered with brown Kraft paper. To my surprise, when my partner and I walked through the door, we espied restaurant-posse members Sam, Cheryl, and Sheila just being seated. We joined them. Another publication had recently named Ortega's to its annual "Best" list, so I guess we'd all turned into foodie-lemmings dashing en masse to the latest hot destination.
Cheryl, Sheila, and I ordered pomegranate margaritas ($10), the house specialty drink. It tastes zesty and -- uh -- healthy, dominated by the pom. Sam offered us a sip of his almond margarita ($9), a subtle, sexy cocktail. I never imagined that almond liqueur would go so well with tequila. The pours are generous, but our waiter seemed absentminded when it came to bringing menus, silverware, plates, and water for my partner and me, as though he couldn't adapt to his trio growing into a quintet. In time, all the requisites arrived but the cutlery, so when the first round of food landed, we stole two sets of silverware from a vacant table.
For guacamole made tableside, the waiter brought a mixing bowl, roasted garlic, and table salsa at the bottom. He added a halved avocado and mashed with the back of a spoon, squirting in the juice from half a grilled lime. "Why do you cook the lime?" asked Sheila. "Grilling draws out the flavor," he answered. Then he pulled out his magic pouch of dry spices and folded them in. The result tasted homey but flat. Fresh cilantro was notably absent. And onion. And tomato.
Did I mention that a major ingredient for the guacamole was the house salsa? It didn't contribute any of the missing flavors. It's not spicy, or tomatoey, or remotely interesting, tasting mainly of sourness and not-so-hot dried chilies. If you need a lively sauce to spice up a dish, you're out of luck. At the Original Ortega's in Puerto Nuevo (the only other Ortega's where I've eaten), they serve two house salsas -- one similar to the San Diego version, the other a fresh-chopped pico de gallo. For that matter, the table here lacked even the bottled hot sauces found in the funkiest local taquerias. Given the chance, I'd have used one.
The menu includes several ceviches, which are served atop deep-fried squares of house-made flour tortillas. (At Original Ortega's in P.N., the ceviche is piled atop a hollowed pineapple half.) The fish ceviche is the most authentic, boasting green-olive slices and a tangy marinade. The crab ceviche (and the shrimp, which Sam had tasted on a previous visit) is less authentic, because the crab is precooked and can't absorb a marinade. Yet the dish is breezy, if not briny, with sweet crabmeat piled high and crowned with a tangle of julienned jicama, cucumber, carrot, and multicoloredbell peppers.
The Caesar salad isn't a Caesar, but it's refreshing, with chopped Romaine, avocado slices, Parmesan shreds, and a light lime vinaigrette. In contrast, a black bean and pumpkin soup is thick, rich, and heavy, a fine dish for a cold winter night. We tried it on a sweltering summer evening, so it's lucky we ordered a cup, not a bowl -- five of us barely got through half.
As in Puerto Nuevo, almost everything is cooked on the grill. For his entrée, Sam opted for a "small plate" consisting of two grilled pork tacos with a side of beans. The house-made corn tortillas are the size of the miniature soft-shelled taquitos served in quartets at all the "berto's" taquerias around town. Ortega's choice of fillings includes steak, cheese, shrimp, free-range chicken breast, mushrooms (portobello plus huitlacoche, a.k.a. "corn smut") or Sam's pick: pork in red chile adobo. That brought a skimpy array of diced grilled pork napped in tangy red sauce and topped with raw red-cabbage julienne. It had a nice nip to it but nothing to get excited about. "I think the shrimp taco Mary Jo had last time was better," said Sam. "The adobo isn't bad, but it would be better with more pork."