Given the ubiquity of restaurants serving Mexican food in the area, to stand out from the pack requires some serious sabor. It means a marriage of authenticity, vision and from-scratch love that, no matter where you’re from, somehow tastes like home.
The most telling sign of such a place is a robust clientele of Mexicans and Mexican Americans. To discover why they are there, just look at what’s on the plate: It might include cactus, mole and deep, tangy pools of tomatillo sauce. It might also just be a simple Mexican classic done so well that home tastes like a vacation. But it will certainly include superlative flavor and high value.
Así es la vida at La Tortuga, a humble Seaside tortería that does so much more than the standard grilled Mexican sandwich, or torta, though the tortas are as good as any on the Central Coast. Tortuga has been a quiet staple for frugal foodies with an affinity for Oaxacan-style food since it opened its doors in 2000, serving up slow-simmered goat stew, menudo and sweet corn tamales with the promise it’s “Una buena seleccíon para comer bien,” or “a good choice for good eating.”
From the outside, one might not be inclined to believe that the choice is all that inteligente – the sign, the exterior, the basic furnishings and the building itself all seem to evoke the very definition of bland. But sometimes, that just means all the love goes straight into the food.
For first timers, the extensive offerings can be hard to navigate: There’s a picture menu above the counter with over 50 dishes, a smaller written menu with fewer, and then a handheld foldout with dishes that are on neither. Guests can order to go at the bar or be served seated at one of the 24 tables while watching fútbol on the big screen in the corner.
Those who choose to play it safe will not be disappointed: The Oaxacan quesillo torta (think deliciously stretchy and salty Mexican string cheese, $5.45) delivers with a studied combination of flavors and texture, a winning tag-team of grilled roll, chipotle mayo, black bean spread, avocado, onion, tomato and quesillo. It’s a torta that, like so many others at Tortuga – the rich and juicy al pastor, seasoned pork cecina and classic chicken breast – makes one wonder if perhaps the sandwich itself was invented in Mexico.
Burritos also shine at Tortuga – including the massive, oozing and truly addictive cheese-chile-relleno burrito ($7.35) – but it’s in some of the entree-sized dishes that one is most likely to encounter inspired, distinctive authenticity. The Fiesta Del Mar ($14.99) is aptly named and rivals any cioppino you’ll find in the county, for half the price. The plate, swimming in a pool of spicy, delectable, tomato-based gravy, nearly overflows with bounty from the sea, combining succulent shrimp, soft and easy-to-chew calamari, clams, oysters, and a breaded fish filet that proves delightfully buttery and flaky. I enjoyed the crab legs most, and savored every little morsel I was able to wrestle from the shell. (I think I got every morsel; by the time I was done with the legs, my hands looked like they’d bathed in a wet bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.)
Other Oaxacan classics proliferate at very reasonable prices, from the playuda, or “Mexican pizza,” a giant tostada layered with black bean paste, tomato, avocado, smashed chicharrones and a choice of chicken breast, grilled steak, marinated pork of chorizo ($12.45) to the enchiladas enmoladas, smothered in a rich black mole sauce built from dried chiles, apples, raisins, almonds, cinnamon, black pepper, plantain, onions and chocolate ($10.49).
Breakfast is another place to hone in on some impressive bargains: Mugs of coffee or café con leche are but $1.49. At $3.25, the irresistible 16-ounce jugo mixto of fresh carrot and orange juice, maybe the best way to start a Seaside Saturday or Sunday, is a couple bucks less than a comparable beverage at Jamba Juice. Combined with thoroughly authentic chilequiles ($8.59), a traditional Mexican breakfast that luxuriates a bed of tortilla chips with I-can-die-now green (or red) sauce, two eggs (over medium is best), Mexican crema and rice and beans, your weekend is made in the space of one sitting.
Luis Vasquez technically owns the place (and for the record, his favorite dish is the mar y tierra, or surf and turf, with shrimp, pork, steak and fish tacos for $14.99). But when the young staff is as shyly sweet and friendly as Carmen, Reyna and company, and the endless options allow for personalized experience, the place feels like yours. It’s that home-away-from-home thing all over again. When that’s the case, everything else – like the infinite flakes of the mil hojas, or “thousand leaves,” cream-and-strawberry finishing treat ($3.99) – is just dessert.
In other words, viva La Tortuga. Viva siempre.
Mark C. Anderson contributed to this story.
La Tortuga Tortería 1257 Fremont Blvd., Seaside. •6am-10pm daily. • 394-8320, 899-8429.