Tortuga Cafe
221 W. Fifth Street,
$3.95 – $8.29

Tortuga. Just say it … tor-too-gah. Doesn’t the word just roll off your tongue, even if you don’t know what it means? To some, this word might conjure up images of the island in the West Indies known for being a pirate refuge back in the 17th century. To those who speak Spanish, tortuga means turtle. But to those in the Oxnard area, the word tortuga might now mean mouthwatering memories of good food from the Tortuga Cafe.

Though the restaurant offers a few nods to its Caribbean pirate theme by way of a few pirate decorations, a pirate turtle with a treasure chest on the menu, and a selection of boxed rum cakes on display behind the counter, the Tortuga Cafe is all-American, all the way down to its creamy milkshakes. Plastic banners trumpeting songs of pizza lunch deals and burger combos adorn the otherwise trendy-looking space filled with marble-topped tables, hardwood floors, a large open kitchen and an enclosed patio with tile-topped tables.

The menu at this restaurant, now just a few months old, offers a modest selection of burgers, sandwiches, salads and brick-oven pizzas. (In a few visits, we sampled nearly everything on the menu.) On our first meal there, we started with an order of hot wings. Each of the happy little drumsticks was bulging with meat. Nicely browned and tender, they were dressed with just the right amount of a perfectly spicy sauce. I’m on a constant quest for good wings in Ventura County, and this place knows how to do wings right.

The tri-tip sandwich, which the owner recommended, was out of this world. Though it looked humble dressed in its little hoagie roll jacket, the meat was superb. It had been rubbed with a blend of spices and grilled until the outside was blackened; and when sliced, the meat was speckled all over with bits of peppery blackened goodness. It was topped with finely chopped grilled onions and a very sweet, dark-brown chipotle barbecue sauce. There was a perfect interplay between the sweetness of the sauce and the spice of the meat. Once again, this restaurant surprised me — who would have thought the Tortuga Cafe would make a killer tri-tip?

The barbecue chicken sandwich, on the other hand, wasn’t very exciting. A grilled chicken breast was topped with the same onions and sauce, plus some melted cheese, but the chicken itself didn’t have a lot of personality. We had hoped it would be smoked or that the chicken would be shredded, but still enjoyed it anyway. The sandwich came as a combo with a drink and fries — thick, salty, with flecks of the skin still on. The grilled chicken club is very similar — they just substitute mayo for the barbecue sauce and add some tomatoes, red onion and bacon.

The burgers come wrapped in paper and might remind you of your favorite drive-in, diner or burger joint. The quarter-pound patties are perfectly cooked and topped with Thousand Island dressing, lettuce, tomatoes and onions. The plain and simple bun is the perfect vehicle for this all-American sandwich. The pizzas are enough for two people to share. The crust is thin and crispy, and the toppings include pepperoni, sausage, Canadian bacon, and even pineapple if you insist on having something tropical.

We also tried the South Coast salad — a nice blend of red and green leaf lettuce topped with tomatoes, cucumber, and feta cheese. Though the tomatoes appeared to be from a can, they were pleasantly spicy; and when mixed with the feta, they became a nice topping for the salad.

The milkshakes are large and decadent, with each being enough for two people (or a small family for that matter) to share. Chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, Oreo and banana are the options if you’re looking for a tall, cold one.

The prices at the Tortuga Cafe are hard to beat, with the combo meals starting at $5.49, the pizzas starting at $5.45, and the entree salads starting at $3.95. This is one of those places where you can easily get a hearty meal for four for around $25. The owners are the backbone of this new restaurant’s service — greeting customers from behind the counter, taking orders, and sliding pizzas into the brick oven. 

If you can leave your expectations of a Caribbean meal at the door, Tortuga Cafe offers some really great burger-joint food at unbeatable prices. Don’t be confused by the name. Just grab your favorite pirate sword, your kids if you like, practice your ‘ahoy, matey!’ and head on over. If you give it a chance, this is one of those new restaurants that will have you cheering for it in no time.