141 University Avenue, Hillcrest
Each time I am seated right away upon arriving at Ortega’s (which is every time), I’m amazed I didn’t have to make my way through a crush of people waiting to get in. I can only assume this is because I tend to go during the day — that perhaps it’s much more crowded at night — because I can’t think of any other reason the place isn’t constantly packed.
The space is comfortable in its Mexican country-home theme, and the service is prompt and friendly. And the food! It’s among the best Mexican food I’ve tasted this side of the border, and I’m not the only one — this kitchen has won multiple diner’s choice awards, and Gordon Ramsay has praised Ortega’s fare.
The dishes here are how I imagine they would be at a 200-year-old hacienda in Puebla, Mexico. Ortega’s chicken mole is my gold standard: sweet, spicy, and multi-dimensional with the classic Puebla-style three-pepper blend (ancho, pasilla, and mulato), which is the flavor pool in which tender chicken swims (its succulent meat separating cleanly from the bone with the slightest effort). It’s topped with sesame seeds, a drizzle of crema, and a spoonful of salsa fresca.
On a recent visit, David ordered the chicken mole enchilada with the same awesome sauce, except his toppings also included a generous sprinkle of a cotija and queso fresco cheese blend.
I wouldn’t order the enchilada for one major reason: I don’t want to do without the giant, flour tortilla that comes with my dish — fresh, handmade, and served in a quaint blue metal pot. It’s the consummate complement to that sauce.
On this same lunch outing, our friend Katie got her handmade flour tortilla in the form of a carnitas burrito. She let me have a bite, and after tasting the meaty, creamy, chewy combination of slow-roasted pork, tomatillo, avocado, pico de gallo, and jack cheese, I almost considered getting the same burrito on my next visit in lieu of the mole. Almost.