Turtle in a Tortilla at Luigi Ortega’s

Feb 22, 2011

Luigi Ortega’s is a strange restaurant. Located just across from PCC, it’s one of several places that constitute a (relatively) recently “gentrified” stretch of Colorado Boulevard—if the meaning of gentrification can be extended to include the opening of Starbucks and Chipotle.

Open for roughly four years, Luigi Ortega’s, in some ways, fits perfectly into this trend: it’s a “standard” Tex-Mex/Italian restaurant (if there is such a thing) with an over-designed interior and cheeky messages from management printed in large font on copy paper and taped to the walls (“We know the Sprite trick!”*), not to mention an elaborate back story and theme: the Luigi Ortega Stories. One particularly choice bit: “Luigi Ortega’s prides itself on unauthentic Mexican food.”

With two locations, Luigi Ortega’s could hardly be said to be a chain. One look, however, at the too-shiny faux wooden tables and the menu hanging at a just-so angle behind the counter, and it’s clear that chaindom is the condition to which it aspires. This is not necessarily a bad thing. On a cross-country road trip, the best meal I ate was at a diner in Albuquerque that had clearly modeled itself on Denny’s and IHOP. The execution, however, was so much better that it made me rethink my hereditary distaste for chain and chain-like establishments.

If Luigi Ortega’s was just another small-bore corporate clone, it would not bear mentioning. It has, however, something most such establishments lack: an “exotic menu” of four unusual meats, served on pizzas, in tacos, burritos, quesadillas and chilies, and—for the serious exoticist—on sticks, “cooked on open fire to perfection.” Those meats are: alligator, ostrich, turtle and kangaroo.

Though I’ve yet to try uni, I like to think of myself as an adventurous eater. But after actually eating kangaroo and turtle, I must confess I am none too eager to try gator or ostrich—at least at Luigi Ortega’s.

I ordered the turtle burrito, my lunch companion the kangaroo. Both burritos consisted of lettuce, pico de gallo, refried beans and Jack and cheddar cheeses. As a burrito, it was perfectly ordinary. Small enough to eat with your hands, not too far removed from something you’d get at Baja Fresh.

A turtle burrito. That brown stuff there is turtle.

And the turtle? It had the consistency and texture of slow-roasted pork, and a vaguely similar flavor, but with what I’ll call, for lack of a robust vocabulary, a weirdly unpleasant aura about it, like I was eating something that had been rubbed down with human-deterring pheromones. In retrospect, it seems almost slimy. I do not think this was psychological, as I dove in quite eagerly. The aura was strongest in the first few bites, gradually fading into a gentle hum on the fringes of my tongue, at which point I could have been eating any old anonymous burrito meat. I did not have any problems finishing the thing.

The same cannot be said for my friend and his kangaroo. Though he made a valiant effort, it was clear from the look on his face after the first bite that he was, ah, unhappy with his food. When I eventually tried a piece of ‘roo, I found it gamy, tough, chewy and generally unpleasant, like bad carne asada. The memory of it makes me frown involuntarily.

The completist in me really wants to try the gator and the ostrich, but I just don’t think I can bring myself to do it. At least not in a taco, a burrito, a quesadilla or on a stick.

Luigi Ortega’s, 1655 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, 626.396.9669,

*This refers to the unsavory practice, wherever soda dispensers are found, of asking for a (free) glass for water but filling it with a “clear” soda, such as Sprite.



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