Ortega's expands the breakfast options to include Tex-Mex favorites
If you're from Texas and are a feisty person who might enjoy long, liquid Friday and/or Saturday nights, the ritual of the Mexican restaurant "hangover breakfast" is as ingrained in your DNA as Tom Landry, Stevie Ray Vaughan and the solemn conviction that Oklahoma is a territory to be ridiculed and perhaps even pitied.
There were many degrees of culture shock to assimilate when my wife Eileen and I moved up here 21 years ago — most of them good, I might add — but the lack of a restorative Mexican restaurant hangover breakfast was like an unwanted extra dimension to your headache. Yes, aspirin, greasy food in general, sleep and, of course, more alcohol are all well-documented in the lore devoted to hangover banishment, but, well, I'm a Texan and our methods are distinctive and efficient.
I don't drink any longer — the production line layoffs at the Keystone Light Brewery were devastating, I'm told — but memories and rituals die hard. And so it was that, a few months back, driving up North Street in Groton one morning, I noticed a banner hanging outside Ortega's, which, for our money is the most accurate representation of fine Tex-Mex in these parts, that announced BREAKFAST was now being served.
I spun my Maserati — er, Honda — into a 180 that would've impressed Evil Knievel and skidded to a spot directly in front of Ortega's. No matter that I'd already had a bowl of cereal and a banana — whee! — I had to know what owner/chef Pablo Ortega had in mind when he decided to open early and feed the hungry and possibly hurting.
Here's what I've figured out: Ortega can absolutely bring the authentic Tex-Mex breakfasts. Dishes are obviously egg-centric and include Huevos Guisados, Rancheros, a la Mexicana, con chorizo and with strips of steak — as well as breakfast burritos, Chilaquiles and a Spanish omelet. But Ortega, who has steadily prospered for years with a regular menu — the restaurant's reputation growing solidly with transplanted southerners and westerners on the Sub Base or at EB and Pfizer and then gradually seducing the locals — knows that many of these dishes are different than the norm up here.
So he's hedged his bets with a variety of familiar offerings like pancakes, biscuits and gravy, bagels, vegetable and Denver omelets, and the plan is to include more bacon- and ham-style choices soon.
It makes sense but, based on what we've sampled, the natives will soon be enchanted by the Tex-Mex portion of the menu, hungover or otherwise. Besides, if you've never been there, it's a quaint and homey spot with two adjoining dining rooms, plenty of authentic south of the border decor, and mariachi music over the house speakers at a volume designed to provide atmosphere and not melt your ears.
Here are a few items Eileen and I have enjoyed so far:
Chilaquiles ($11.95) — This is a giant offering and would, I think, be one of the first things to consider after overly-celebrating the night before. At the heart of the dish is a pile of thick strips of corn tortillas, stir-fried to crisp glory, then topped with fresh, tart salsa and queso fresco (a native Mexican cheese Ortega obtains on weekly trips to either Providence or Orange). Surrounding this heap of greatness are supportive mounds of delightfully fluffy scrambled eggs; a creamy refried beans mixture that includes diced bits of spice-flecked chorizo sausage; and Ortega's take on home fries, which are separately pan roasted in oil rather than butter and thus maintain their shape and and firmness, includes finely diced potato, green pepper and onion.
Huevos a la Mexicana ($10.95) — Scrambled eggs with firm tomatoes, onions and crisp jalapenos, the latter of which provide a kick. Simple but vibrant with freshness and spice.
Huevos con Chorizo ($11.75) — Again with the hyper-fluffy eggs! These are also scrambled in a skillet reserved expressly for that purpose, so they have a distinctive flavor. They don't skimp on the sharp chorizo either, which spangles the tongue in nice contrast to the eggs. Served with home fries for tactical support.
We've also dipped into the more American offerings and were equally pleased by the efforts. Eileen sampled plain pancakes (three for $6.75, $7.25 in blueberry or chocolate chip varieties) and was rewarded with a plateful of giant, thick discs with soft nooks and crannies to hold the syrup. Bonus: ample amounts of soft, ready-to-spread butter were provided, circumventing the all-too-frequent necessity of smearing cold, hard butter pats in a fashion that rips the pancakes apart.
I tried the Sausage Gravy Breakfast ($8.95) and couldn't be more pleased. Two scrambled eggs and a batch of home fries were nestled on the north boundary of a huge slab of buttery Texas toast ladles with thick, peppery cream gravy punctuated with chorizo bits. Delicious.
It will be interesting to see how folks react to breakfast at Ortega's. The Tex-Mex creations should appeal to anyone hungry, and the expanding American choices are certainly competitive with anything out there. At the same time, folks like Eileen and myself need to remember that Tex-Mex breakfast isn't exclusively a weekend treat. It's damned good any time.
Ortega's Mexican Restaurant
108 North St., Groton
Cuisine: New breakfast menu, augmenting their longtime and popular lunch and dinner options, featuring both Tex-Mex specialties and American favorites.
Atmosphere: Small and cozy with plenty of indigenous color and decor.
Service: Ready to explain any intricacies and, by the second or third visit, you're family.
Hours: Breakfast 7 a.m.-10 a.m. Mon.-Fri., 7 a.m.-11 a.m. Sat. and Sun.; lunch and dinner hours 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sun.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Fri. and Sat.
Breakfast prices: $3.75-$12.95
Handicap access: Angled walkway from street to sidewalk and a small step up into restaurant.
Credit cards: All major.
Reservations: Good plan for large parties; a group of 11 came in for a corporate breakfast on a recent weekday when we were there and had thoughtfully called ahead.