By Frank Sabatini Jr.
Just when I put the kibosh on waiting in long lines to score a solid breakfast on weekend mornings, Ortega’s Bistro in Hillcrest came to the rescue.
Famous for its Puerto Nuevo cuisine, especially grilled spiny lobsters, I recently spotted through profuse bougainvillea a banner out front stating breakfast is served from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. It has actually been happening for years and I regrettably never noticed.
Apparently other breakfast-goers also assume the tastefully appointed restaurant serves only lunch and dinner given that my father and I were seated immediately on a Sunday morning, sans the commotion inherent to other Uptown breakfast joints.
Visiting from back East, his go-to breakfast dish in San Diego is huevos rancheros. He has eaten it at establishments all over town in the years I’ve lived here. Yet halfway through our meal he rated the version at Ortega’s as his favorite.
Part of the appeal stemmed from the roasted tomato arbol sauce accented with sautéed poblano peppers, a stimulating departure from traditional rancheros sauce typically flooding the eggs. Though like son, like father, he requested the sauce on the side and dribbled it judiciously over the deftly scrambled huevos. I taught him years ago it’s the best way to eat the dish.
The grilled corn tortilla underneath was fresh and buttery; the accompanying refried beans were flavorful and velvety; and the fluffy rice seemed cooked in either vegetable or chicken stock. Nothing on the plate tasted boring. Nor was it constructed in slapdash fashion.
I started with a Bloody Maria spiked generously with tequila but lacking in peppery zip. The house-made mix had a mild tomato flavor similar to the base of the hearty chicken-tortilla soup I also ordered. In that it paired well with cubed avocado, tender chicken pieces and pleasing bursts of cilantro. The cocktail, however, needed more heat to match the boozy bang.
Ortega’s French toast is wildly toothsome. Made with challah bread from nearby Bread & Cie, it dazzles the palate with a buttery, crispy veneer that leads into helium-light centers. The bread pieces are pre-dressed in butter, syrup and cinnamon, and served with a dollop of cinnamon-infused whipped cream. The menu lists it as “amazing French toast.” And it truly is.
Carnitas hash was my entrée choice. It yielded a perfect ratio of cubed, succulent pork to the sautéed potatoes, poblano chilies and onions. Topped with zingy tomatillo sauce, the plate makes room for three scrambled eggs and a cup of stewed charro beans that I folded into fresh flour tortillas that are kept warm in a rustic metal pot.
Other options include chilaquiles con huevos, a shrimp omelet and a loaded breakfast burrito filled with eggs, bacon, chilies and rosemary potatoes. In addition, all items on the regular menu are also available, should you want to kick-start your day with steak tacos or a grilled lobster.
Based on a couple of past dinner visits as well, the food and atmosphere at Ortega’s are exquisite without relying on trendy fads or PR gimmicks. Perhaps it was an anomaly we were able to walk right in and choose a table in either the main dining room or colorful cantina in the back of the restaurant. But even if faced with a line, I’ll take this breakfast experience any weekend over one that is all show and no substance.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.