Luigi Ortega’s Italian Mexican Cafe
606 N. Ventura Road
$3 – $14.25
Picture this: you are sitting at a table in a small, dark room. Colored skulls adorn the walls and your table is actually a glass-topped coffin with a skeleton inside. You are drinking a beer and eating a slice of pizza. Picture this: you are sitting in another dark room that feels like a bank vault, complete with a heavy, metal bank vault door. It is lit only by the strangeness of a black light. Your friend is eating alligator and kangaroo tacos, and you are eating penne pasta with elephant garlic, basil, tomatoes and shrimp in a white wine sauce. You go into the bathroom, and there are signs everywhere that read “Whatever you do, don’t press the red button.” The signs are calling out to you, taunting you, begging you to test your curiosity. You press it, the lights go off, two disco balls light up the darkness, and “Stayin’ Alive” blares from the speaker. Welcome to Luigi Ortega’s.
I was originally drawn to this eclectic restaurant because of its exotic foods like ostrich burritos, turtle quesadillas and kangaroo pizza. But what I found was way more than that: a fun house meets sports bar stirred into a part Mexican, part Italian restaurant. Consider the menu: it is an overwhelming array of excess, from wings to fries, lasagna to penne, hoagies to tacos. And the atmosphere is one-of-a-kind with video games galore, flat panel TVs everywhere, a bar enclosed by hockey rink glass, a bleachers section for taking in the big game on the big screen, and theme rooms tucked in every corner.
When I started to ask about the exotic menu, the woman taking our order quickly said (like she has to explain this often), “Yes, it is real.” And when I asked the man behind the counter where the exotic meats come from, he said, “I don’t know.” This was a bit disconcerting, and for a moment I hesitated; but we had come to try exotic meats, and that’s what we were going to do! So, we started with the turtle chili. More of a soup than a chili, it was brothy and had no beans in it.
The turtle was supersoft and shredded, similar to a slowly cooked beef, but bordering on mushy. This simple soup was enhanced by some red peppers, tomatoes, onion and gooey melted cheese.
Wanting to expand our exotic eating, we also ordered two tacos: one kangaroo and one ’gator. The tacos themselves were delicious — made with two small corn tortillas, shredded cabbage, pico de gallo and a tangy, creamy dressing they call L.O.’s sauce. The alligator meat, which, after doing a bit of research, I’ve determined was probably from the tail of the alligator, was dusted with a Creole seasoning and sautéed. It was tender and tasted like a cross between chicken and pork, but seemed less flavorful. The kangaroo meat, on the other hand, was dark and tender. I thought it tasted like a fairly plain steak, but my companion thought it had a fishy aftertaste. Many describe kangaroo meat as being too gamey and tough, but I didn’t find this at all. We topped both tacos with fresh and spicy salsas from the salsa bar, and then turned our attention to some of the more traditional items on the table.
The buffalo wings were crispy, spicy and basic. The Ortega fries, on the other hand, were anything but basic. These thick-cut steak fries were mounded on a plate and topped nacho-style with chili, oozy cheese, chunky pico de gallo and enchilada sauce. The chili was darker than dark and melted in the mouth with each bite. The whole dish, most of which went home in a takeout box, was the epitome of naughty excess. The Philly cheese steak sandwich was everything a cheese steak should be. The meat was tender and topped with grilled onions, provolone, American cheese and Cheez Whiz (which is proudly yet strangely dispensed upon request only). The bread was firm enough to hold together, but gave gently with each bite. We ate half, and packed the rest in our bulging takeout box.
All in all, Luigi Ortega’s is a great place to go if you want to get a lot of food for not a lot of dinero. It’s a great place to go if you want to get a pitcher of beer and let your kids run wild. It’s a great place to go if you want to be able to say, “I’ve eaten kangaroo” or “I’ve eaten turtle chili.” It’s probably not the best place to go if you’re on a diet or looking for a quiet, romantic meal. But Luigi’s is a great place to go if you’re up for a slightly weird experience. And in the spirit of Halloween, shouldn’t we all loosen up and invite a little more weird fun into our lives?