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Newport North

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."

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!

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