Baja Betty's and Ortega's
location: 1421 University Avenue, Hillcrest
chef: Soloman Leon
SALSA TO THE LEFT, salsa to the right, dunk some nachos, and party all night. Or at least until closing time at two new Mexican eateries near the eastern and western borders of Hillcrest. The imagination struggles to believe the fun ever ends at disco-driven Baja Betty’s (1421 University Avenue), which bolsters an engaging menu with discount promotions like Sunday’s 11 a.m.–1 a.m. “Margarita Madness.”
Over toward Mission Hills, Ortega’s (141 University) bills itself “A Mexican Bistro” and is a rare (but not unprecedented) case of an established Baja California restaurant firm crossing the border. It’s operated by the well-known Ortega’s family of Puerto Nuevo, Mexico, the once-tiny “lobster village” that now bursts at the seams. This welcoming new establishment tones down the party mood but is nonetheless a lively destination for top-quality cuisine.
Baja Betty’s plays Donna Summer’s “Last Dance” at any hour (elsewhere, the 1970s classic closes the evening), which suggests management regrets the nightly obligation to flip the light switch to “off.” Guests who dislike disco almost certainly would be happier elsewhere. But the place is fun, fun, fun, and servers have a talent for providing the sort of friendly service that makes you want to hang out for hours. Alas, the food can arrive speedily, and in portions that may shoo you out the door to walk off the calories.
Dish titles seem cutesy after a bit, owing partly to the find-a-name competition that the restaurant, originally called Margarita Mary’s, staged after the franchiser of the Hamburger Mary’s brand raised a fuss. Combination plates ($9.95 for two items, $10.95 for three, on plates piled with rice and beans) can be built by pairing such choices as “Hombre Harry’s hard taco” with “Sister Sally’s soft taco.”
The first features a crisp corn tortilla, the second a soft flour tortilla, but otherwise, filling choices are the same, echoed under every menu heading: shredded beef, shredded chicken, carne asada and carnitas. The latter is exceptionally good, and for a meal that’s lighter than a combination but still sufficient, the carnitas quesadilla ($6.95) comes through with style.
location: 141 University Avenue, Hillcrest
chef: Danny Gonzales
JUST TO THE LEFT of Ortega’s front door, the word “Open” is painted on a cast-iron skillet that hangs from a sturdy hook and presumably hangs indoors when “Closed” applies. A charming place, Ortega’s gets the details right, from candles that glow in deep, amber-colored holders to Puerto Nuevo–style lobster dinners that rival those served in Baja and cost a surprisingly gentle $22.95. Usually more jazzy than Latin, the music adopts an accent at times, and beamed ceilings and a rustic iron wine rack make the dining room look good.
Behind the glass-fronted kitchen, a staff somewhat larger than a small restaurant would seem to require works at a steady pace, and at one end of the line, a woman cooks extra-large flour tortillas through the night. These wrap the grilled tacos à la parrilla offered as “small plates” ($8, and big enough) and accompany entrées such as the grilled free-range chicken breast ($12) and the Kobe beef “bistek” with porcini and Mexican cuitlacoche mushrooms.
Servers wear jeans, and red polo shirts as brightly hued as the fresh pico de gallo salsa that pairs off with crisp chips and everything else. Ask for the thin, crimson salsa served in Puerto Nuevo and the server will say “We call that ‘red salsa’ ” as he hurries to fetch a bowl. It’s good—and hot. If a little dab’ll do ya, a dozen dabs’ll do you in, if ever so tastefully. This salsa should be drizzled by droplets on the lobster, or painted in a thin line down the center of a tortilla that you then roll and nibble bite by sensuous bite.
Start with prepared-at-table guacamole ($6) or a bowl of savory, black bean–pumpkin soup ($4), but finish with another tortilla rather than a made-off-premises pastry ($6). Although the wine list offers few selections by the glass, the Wild Horse Pinot Noir complements virtually the full menu—if $8 seems reasonable for a glass of wine in so casual a setting.
Baja Betty’s hot-enough salsa fresca nicely supplements the sprinkles of chopped onion and cilantro atop the cheese-gilded quesadilla; mounds of sour cream and guacamole provide further condiment options. The quesadillas present excellent value (try the version with shrimp in white sauce), and if you blow $1.95 on a big side dish of beans, this is definitely dinner.
Otherwise, the menu lists burritos, nachos with a remarkable selection of toppings, homemade tamales, chiles rellenos, tostadas—if it sounds familiar, Baja Betty’s has it. The kitchen paints flavors so precisely that in this case, familiarity breeds respect.
Baja Betty’s (1421 University Avenue, 619-269-8510) serves lunch and dinner daily and does not accept reservations.
Ortega’s (141 University Avenue, 619-692-4200) also serves lunch and dinner daily. Reservations are accepted.