141 University Ave.,
Ortega's, a younger sibling of the four Ortega's restaurants in Puerto Nuevo and Rosarito, opened in Hillcrest almost a year ago. If you haven't noticed it, it's because the unassuming exterior doesn't attract much attention, compounded by the fact that ostentatious Hamburger Mary's sits catty-corner.
Regardless, Ortega's seems to be doing quite well-something, perhaps, the owners didn't anticipate, because if you have to wait for a table, the parking lot is your waiting area. There's no place to hang out inside-no bar, no chairs by the front entrance. If you loiter inside near the door, the people sitting next to you will be forced to stare at your ass until you're seated. And, while I don't know this to be fact, if you have a reservation, you're likely to get a better table than walk-ins. On a recent Wednesday night (I tried for a 7 p.m. reservation and was told that slot was already full, so I opted for 6:30 p.m.), there were two empty tables by the door when we arrived but a larger table near the back of the restaurant had a reserved sign on it, just for us. I hate sitting near the door. Be smart-make a reservation.
Once you're inside, Ortega's is quaint and cozy. Though small, there's plenty of room between tables. High ceilings absorb chatter, so you have no problem hearing your pal across the table or listening intently as your friendly waiter, Dave, explains why huachinago (a Mexican red-snapper) isn't the same thing as huitacoche (a mushroom-like black fungus that grows on corn).
Let me explain: I had considered ordering the banana-crusted huachinago, but after stuffing my face with chips, salsa and an appetizer, I opted for two small huitacoche-and-Portobello tacos, thinking I was ordering huachinago-and-Portobello tacos. They both start with "hu," so, yes, I got a little confused by the rest of the letters. And I was kind of soused after finishing most of a Presidio margarita ($8, made with a generous amount of agave tequila. The $6 Cabrillo Margarita is made with Cuervo Gold).
I poked around the taco with my fork and felt cheated-all mushrooms (along with a tasty mix of red cabbage, black beans, bell peppers, corn and avocado). I asked waiter Dave what happened to the fish. He politely explained that I ordered the mushroom-only tacos. "No, they were supposed to have the H-U-something in them," I said.
Yes, he said, huitacoche. "Then what's the banana-crusted stuff?" I asked. "Huachinago," he said with perfect pronunciation. And, though I'd eaten one taco and poked the second to pieces, he offered to bring me tacos more to my liking. "No, these are great," I told him. "I'm just an idiot."
Indeed, the "small plate" tacos I ordered were tasty ($8 for two). The other options (seven or eight different ones), like shrimp with lime and cilantro or poblano chilies with cheese, looked equally good. In my opinion, a taco combo plate wouldn't be a bad addition to the menu-your choice of three different tacos, maybe? Two tacos come with a side of beans, though I substituted the beans for rice.
My companion food tasters ordered the chicken mole ($12) and half-lobster with shrimp ($20)-it's rather pointless to go to a Puerto Nuevo-style restaurant and not order the lobster. For a starter, we ordered the coconut shrimp ceviche ($10). Chopped-up shrimp with lime juice, coconut milk, red bell pepper, cucumber and-I'm guessing-fresh ginger filled a partially hollowed-out coconut. It was the best damn thing I've eaten in years. Even the wary shrimp eater sitting across from me liked it. And with just a little effort, you could scrape some of the fresh coconut onto your spoon, as well. Yum. I could easily become addicted.
The lobster was perfect-would you expect anything less?-though maybe a little on the small side. Though, what is it they say in Puerto Nuevo? Bigger isn't better? And when something comes with a ramekin of melted butter, maybe a small serving is best. The accompanying grilled shrimp were fat, tasty little critters.
With the chicken mole, waiter Dave was kind enough to ask the folks in the kitchen what comprised the sauce other than the usual chocolate and chilies. We tasted something vaguely fruity. Cloves and raisins was the answer. A nice touch for an otherwise safe dish.
All entrées come with a side of beans (smoky flavored, whole beans) and rice. One review of Ortega's I read described the rice as bland. But Mexican rice isn't something you're supposed to get all creative with. My husband, whose grandmother was born in Mexico, compares all rice to hers. Ortega's got the Abuela Espinosa thumbs up.
Dear readers, we tried our best to save room for dessert, but chips and salsa at the front means no dessert at the end. The choices were flan or cheesecake. You'll have to try them for yourselves.
Ortega's is open weekdays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m., weekends from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.