Ortega purchased the restaurant 12 years ago, five years after opening Ortega’s Cocina on Newport Avenue in Ocean Beach. His eight brothers and sisters run it now, while his wife and two of their daughters help at the buffet restaurant.
Ortega said the pizzeria was humming along, pulling in about $1,000 a day, until the fateful Sept. 11, 2001, when business plummeted. Adding Mexican fare, including the buffet, was his attempt to attract more customers. It worked, and business started picking up, better at lunch than dinner.
“(The buffet) is not a great idea, but we’ve been surviving,” Ortega said with his typical good humor.
Despite the proliferation of Mexican restaurants in San Diego, Ortega said, there are few Mexican buffets.
“You have to know what to serve and what not to serve so the food’s not overcooked,” he said.
The buffet offers 14 items, including the chicken mole poblano, chili verde pork and steak ranchero, plus vegetarian dishes and tortillas. For dessert, Ortega makes flan custard-filled pastelito pastries. He learned the secret of making them at his grandfather’s bakery in Puebla, Mexico, Ortega’s hometown.
“Only me and my grandfather make them and he’s passed away,” Ortega said.
The cost for the all-you-can-eat fare is $8.99 for lunch and $9.99 for dinner.
In addition to the buffet, Ortega, who said he’s “the chef, the everything,” serves up made-to-order dishes, from the usual Mexican fare of enchiladas and tortas to such exotic specials as two calamari enchiladas for $8.99, and three red snapper taquitos for $4.75. For dessert, there’s an unexpected Italian tiramisu for $3.99.
Prices start as low as 99 cents for beer-battered cod fish tacos and vegetarian tacos.
“We have to give them away,” Ortega joked, adding that it’s a good way to introduce customers to the restaurant. For more refined tastes, he also offers salmon and halibut tacos at $2.99.
Large specialty pizzas, including spinach and chicken alfredo are $14.99. Traditional, large one-topping pizzas are $6.99.
Ortega points out that he even offers “my own beer on tap.” Well, he doesn’t actually brew Ortegas Pale Ale, “but I own the name.”
Open at 8 a.m., Ortegas also offers a limited breakfast menu all day, including huevos rancheros at $6.99; a breakfast burrito with eggs, potatoes, cheese and a choice of ham, bacon, sausage or chorizo for $3.99; and a spinach, eggs, mushrooms, onions and mozzarella burrito, $6.99. He’s grooming a nephew to cook the breakfasts and hopes soon to open even earlier and serve a wider selection of offerings.
His daughter, Marlyn, who received a degree in linguistics last year from San Jose State University, works the counter and keeps the books; his wife, Teresa, helps with the cooking, and his 17-year-old daughter, Vanessa, helps out on weekends. His oldest daughter, a teacher, used to work at the restaurant, as did Marlyn’s twin, who’s now an airborne medic in the Army.
Ortega said he gave his family no choice but to work.
“If you don’t like this,” he said he told them, “you can go to El Pollo Loco or Jack in the Box.”
Ortega said he enjoys everything about running a restaurant — “except fixing the hoods and the plumbing.”
• Ortegas Mexican Buffet and Pizza, 3445 Midway Drive. Open Mondays through Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.; www.ortegas.us, (619) 224-0774. Delivery is free within three miles and with a minimum order of $20.