4993 Niagara Ave.
The first thing my date and I noticed about oh-so-funky Ocean Beach was the pungent smell of habitual public urination. There may be deeper long-term issues, but the neighborhood could really improve the short-term quality of life with either a strategically placed port-a-potty or a publicly funded Depends-exchange program.
On the bright side, everywhere we went in O.B.-at the coffee shop, at the breakfast counter, on the street-we saw people actually reading CityBeat. They weren't turned to this column, of course, but I knew City Eat was there, lurking underneath all that incisive political commentary and hip music reporting and whatnot. My little heart nearly burst with pride.
My third, and maybe best, impression of Ocean Beach came from a cheese and jalapeño tamale. The ends had baked to hard bookends on either side of the moist, crumbly, slightly sweet corn meal filling. Cheese and a roasted jalapeño pepper, sliced lengthwise, topped it off. I was reminded of the sweet tamales at the roadside stands en route to La Bufadora. If the name wasn't already a giveaway, the charmingly typo-ridden menus at Ortega's Tamaleria announce, in all capital letters, that tamales are the specialty.
The newest Ortega family restaurant is only a few blocks away from the original, Ortega's Cocina on Newport Avenue. An O.B. staple, Ortega's Cocina has long offered above-average Mexican fare at economy prices. (You could buy a bean and cheese or bean and rice burrito with the change in your couch.)
The primary differences at the new Tamaleria seem to be a more expansive décor, slightly higher prices and a full bar. A plus: the bartender made the best double well margarita, with just a splash of sweet and sour, that I have managed to elicit from any bar other than my own. A minus: the new décor does not include a new sound system, and on our lunch visit, a static-y boom box played music from that god-awful smooth-jazz station.
The menus, meanwhile, are very similar, although the bigger and better new restaurant does offer some more unusual and upscale entrées. Both locations offer an outstanding version of chile relleno, perfectly roasted to release the pepper flavor, soft but not stringy or mushy from overcooking. Both also do a knockout calamari relleno, calamari steak wrapped around cheese and fresh spinach with fresh basil and pepper. The roll was sliced, sushi-style, over a rich chipotle cream sauce.
Of course, nothing is perfect, and the Achilles heel of the Ortega family seemed to be fish tacos. We tried grilled and fried versions, and the surroundings in both were fairly standard, but the meats were inexplicably, impossibly chewy.
"They have a secret agreement with South Beach," my dining companion theorized after one hard-fought bite. "You know, not to infringe on their specialty."
She had more luck with her doughy lobster enchilada, twirling long thick strands of cheese around her fork. "Every forkful looks like this," she effused, enthusiastically topping off her forkful with a few salty capers.
I hesitantly ordered the eggplant enchilada special, as the waitress recommended. Neither my dining companion nor I are eggplant fans, but this was my all-time favorite use of the vegetable (no, wait, fruit). A large eggplant was sliced into thin pancakes, breaded and deep-fried, and then wrapped around asparagus and spinach. The whole thing was, of course, draped in cheese and a spicier red pepper cream sauce. I asked for a doggy bag, my first of the year.
If you're looking for something out of the ordinary but a little less so, try the pastor, an addictive, sweet barbecued pork, achingly tender and flavorful, with just a touch of spicy. We fought over every bite of our pastor burrito.
"Oh, god," my dining companion suddenly said over a mouthful of pork. "We should have tried a pastor tamale."
I have not been able to get the image out of my head since. So, piss stench be damned, we will be heading back to O.B. soon, if only to feed my tamale obsession (without driving to Ensenada). And if I do happen to piss myself with joy, chances are I will still fit in.
Either urine or you're out at cityeat@SDcitybeat.com.