Turtle and kangaroo (Luigi Ortega's)
This is a kangaroo taco - you could accidently eat this
With Pasadena's Luigi Ortega's being located directly across the street from Pasadena Community College, you would expect to see a noisy, college hangout. Sandwiches and pizza come as no surprise, nor does the East Coast atmosphere. What usually causes a double-take is the Exotic Menu; a separate menu offers dishes such as Gator Pie (a pizza topped with garlic-marinated alligator) and Ostrich Quesadilla (exactly what it sounds like.) For a nominal fee, you can also substitute ostrich, kangaroo, alligator or turtle for meat items on the regular menu (think cheese steak sandwich with kangaroo.) The concept is simple - blur the lines between a Philly or New York pizza and sub shop with a California taco stand. The logo features caricatures of what we can assume to be Luigi and Ortega - Luigi looking like one those ceramic Italian chef utensil holders and Ortega being a throwback to the politically incorrect days of the Frito Bandito. One of the house specialties is a foreboding-sounding "Dr. Death's Suicide Pie", a jalapeño pizza topped with 6 whole habañero peppers ( a good late-night drunken dare menu item).
Eddie Lin and me in front of Luigi Ortegas in Pasadena CA
I invited fellow food adventurer and blogger Eddie Lin to join me for lunch, and after describing the Exotic Menu to him he accepted my offer. The vibe inside is confusing - there are a plethora of wide-screen flat panel screens each showing a separate channel (including The Travel Channel); old 8 by 10 reproductions of historic newspaper front pages were pressed between the wooden tables and glass table tops. The walls were papered in enlarged signs, maps, and photos with old scenes from East Coast cities. A huge blue hand straight out of Yellow Submarine pointed to the counter where the food is ordered. Naturally, I ordered from the Exotic Menu, deciding on grilled turtle on a stick and a kangaroo taco. Eddie ordered the exotic meat sampler, with a skewer from each of the four food groups (alligator, kangaroo, ostrich and turtle), but also wanted to try their Philadelphia-style cheese steak sandwich. After ordering, we were each handed a plastic slice of pizza that lights up and vibrates when your order is ready - these are placed in a handy rack on the table with v-shaped slots for the pizza lights. The staff sees your pizza light up and voila! Dinner is served.
I don't recall seeing my "slice" light up, but it seemed to take a long time to get the food. This was a bit unusual since there were only patrons at two other tables. I imagine that if it took that long when the restaurant was empty, you'd better not be hungry when they're at full capacity. The kangaroo taco arrived first; to the naked eye it appeared to be your run of the mill open-faced (soft) taco with lettuce, cheese and tomato (with a sprinkling of cilantro thrown in there just for fun). The kangaroo looked like a light-colored beef, but had the slight taste and consistency of lamb (albeit chewier). Although it was somewhat bland, it provided the benefit of not taking away from the taste of the kangaroo.
Enjoying a turtle kebab at Luigi Ortega
When the turtle skewers arrived, there were four sticks arranged on a plate with a little plastic tub of peanut dipping sauce. A fingertip of the sauce revealed it to taste like Thai peanut salad dressing; it wasn't horrible or spectacular, but I decided to try the turtle au natural. I have had the turtle burrito here previously, and "snapper" soup at Bookbinder's in Philadelphia, but I don't recall it being as tough as the kebabs were. They required some chewing, and unfortunately were cold (they may have been left sitting before being brought to the table). The taste was similar to pot roast, but with a muddy sort of undertone. They were tasty, but probably would have been more enjoyable had they not been cold. I'm thinking that ordering the skewers may require some sort of preparation that is unnecessary when adding the meat to a standard menu item, but you run the risk of the taste being subdued by the other ingredients (as was the case with the aforementioned burrito). What would keep me coming back is the atmosphere, the novelty of being able to get exotic meat and the wacky sense of humor and kitsch displayed, but more cold food in the future may trump that.
It's definitely worth the experience, and a fun place to hang out, but whatever you do, DO NOT PRESS THE RED BUTTON in the rest room. Just don't do it. Don't say I didn't warn you.
1655 E Colorado Blvd
Pasadena, CA 91106-2131
GPS coordinates: 34° 8'46.09"N 118° 6'58.27"W
See more images of Val and Eddie Lin at Luigi Ortega's in Pasadena, California
See Eddie Lin's blog article on Luigi Ortega's at Deep End Dining