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Alliance for progress
Italian-Mexican merger clicks for Luigi Ortega's Cafe
By Dan O'Heron
Luigi Ortega's Cafe is an Italian and Mexican restaurant that has it both ways: "uncomparable" by
dint of its dissimilarity to other restaurants in this town and "incomparable" by reason of the
excellence of its product.
Before my visit, I had no idea that there'd be something so worthy to write about. I'd heard
scattered reports about Luigi Ortega's atmosphere — about the shopping carts mobilized around
tables, bathroom-like towel dispensers on the walls of the dining room, front page newspaper
headlines under glass table tops, exhibition meat locker and kitchen, free WiFi, large-screen TVs,
T-shirts, ceiling fans and Cheez Whiz. It all led me to think there'd been an explosion at Wal-Mart.
My first glance through the window confirmed the reports; but after seeing the easy smiles of
several guests, it looked like the pieces may have fallen into the right place.
Luigi Ortega's Café
1655 E. Colorado Blvd.,
Once inside, my first impression was that the room's decor was overworked by amateurs. You've
seen the sort of thing — with that faint flavor of bungling blended with a strong flavor of
enthusiasm — where efforts are sincere but with more love than skill.
Moments later I was reading yum-yum descriptions on the menu and warming up to the swirl of the
surroundings. The miniature shopping carts are functional, serving as vehicles on which to pass
around the salt, pepper, Tabasco and more unspeakable condiments like Dr. Death's Suicide
Sauce and Cheez Whiz. It became clear that the work was done deliberately after due
consideration; junk was turning into treasure for partners Josh Schreider and Aro Agakhanyan.
I was particularly fascinated by newspaper front pages used as table covers. These encourage
guests to sit at a different table each visit, so they can turn to a new page of history.
According to Schreider, formerly a show-biz publicist, "Our goal is to provide tasty dishes that don't
leave you hungry, at affordable prices, in a fun and novel setting." Partner Agakhanyan, who owns
the burgeoning Big Mama's & Papa's Pizzeria chain, says, "It's not just a restaurant; it's an
experience. Hang out and enjoy." Before opening, he said, they spent months traveling the
country gathering the best regional recipes they could find for both Italian and Mexican foods.
I sensed that the restaurant was a little more Italianate than Mexican. In fact, after a bite of a Philly
cheese steak (one of eight Philly dillies packed in classic Amorosa rolls on a 17-item hot sandwich
menu), and repeated tastes of Sinatra and Springsteen, it was like being transported to a hangout-
style deli in Queens or Jersey City. I'm convinced there's no place like this anywhere west of the
Schreider said that I'd get the Hispanic part big time if I tried the Ortega nachos or Mexican
lasagna. I missed the lasagna, but its picture on the front page of the slick newsletter/menu, “The
L.O. Times,” makes it seem most inviting.
But the $6.99 platter of steak nachos was superb. Four of us chipped away at a generous portion.
It was nothing like muck-over-yuck things I've endured elsewhere (like at Dodger Stadium, where
nachos are deployed against human predators to thin out the lines at food stands). No, this was
an extravagant blending of contrasting flavors that were meant for each other: chopped steak,
jalapeño slices, refried beans, guacamole, chiles, buttery Jack and sharp Cheddar cheeses,
redolent of pico de gallo and pebbled with black olives.
Food platters we sampled, I confess, were too big and delicious to be good for you. These
included a $9.99 shrimp dish, sautéed in wine sauce, Parmesan and elephant garlic, which is not
true garlic but a leek relative, with bulbs the size of small grapefruit. However, they are milder than
Mexican garlic, so you won't need to keep a safe distance from people at the next table.
Expect to find a lot of people at the next table: most of the food is meant for sharing. A divided
order of an 18-inch sandwich (from $8.99 to $14.99) easily satisfies four. Wood-fired, 10-inch
pizzas (from $6.99 to $10.99) should appease most twosomes. Loners can indulge in nine-inch
sandwiches from $4.99 to $6.99, lunch-truck tacos at $1.99 or luxury model mahi mahi for a dollar
more. A range of desserts come from the Cheesecake Factory bakery.
I'd be cautious, though, about including Asian fish tacos and German chocolate cake on an Italian-
Mexican menu. This border crossing could create a perception that Luigi Ortega is into the wide
world of "American Regional Cookery," a type of place author Calvin Trillin nicks with the name "La
Maison de la Casa House."