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Trip of the Week

The Baja Town That Serves Lobster

July 17, 1988|MICHELE GRIMM and TOM GRIMM | The Grimms are writers/photographers based in Laguna Beach.

PUERTO NUEVO, Mexico — This is the Baja California town that lobsters built . . . and are still building.

New Port (as the name translates) had 32 restaurants at last count, and all of them feature one item at the top of their menus--lobster.

Thanks to langosta , as the tasty shellfish is known locally, the once-sleepy fishing village has become a boom town. An exit sign to Puerto Nuevo has even been posted on the Tijuana-Ensenada toll road.

In the past, visitors found the place by word of mouth. And by the time they turned off Mexico 1 at kilometer 44, most people were salivating at the thought of being served a platter of freshly caught lobster.

These days, due to its popularity, the lobster may have arrived at the restaurant fresh-frozen instead of being pulled from the ocean just in front of the village. But it's still the local variety, the spiny lobster, with succulent meat in its tail.

Cut Lengthwise

The crustacean is served Puerto Nuevo style, which means it's cut in half lengthwise and then deep-fried in lard or vegetable oil.

Limes and a cup of drawn butter accompany the shellfish, along with rice, refried beans and flour tortillas. Icy cervezas and margaritas add to a memorable meal.

Part of the enjoyment is when you pay for a Puerto Nuevo lobster dinner. Without drinks it costs as little as $10 or $11.

That's for a small lobster. The more popular medium size weighs in at about 1 pounds for $12 or $13. A large langosta is 1 3/4 pounds for $3 or $4 more. Figure to pay about $19 for an extra-large; you'll have to ask the price for a jumbo lobster, which weighs 2 1/2 to 9 pounds, when available.

Lobster was being served to Puerto Nuevo visitors as long ago as the 1950s. In those days it was an extra treat for sportsmen who hired out the fishing boats. The boat owners' families would cook a few lobsters for the men when they returned from the sea.

As word spread that fresh lobster was available at the village, Baja travelers pulled in for an informal and inexpensive feast in the kitchens of Puerto Nuevo's fishermen. At the home of Juan and Petra Ortega, guests made their selection from a washtub filled with lobsters that were kept cool under a wet gunny sack.

By 1975 the Ortegas had built Puerto Nuevo's first restaurant and began a lobster-dining dynasty that has grown to six Ortega eateries, plus two more up the road in Rosarito. Some days the Ortega family serves as many as 1,800 lobsters.

Their most modest restaurant is the original Ortega's Place No. 1, still run by Juan and Petra, with the help of two of their daughters, Marta and Graciela.

Just around the corner is the family's newest and fanciest dining spot, the gleaming white, three-story Ortega's Beachside restaurant that opened last Christmas Day. It's managed by the youngest son, Juan Carlos, who has enlarged the usual lobster menu to feature other specialties such as seafood pizza.

Scattered around the small ocean-view village are four more establishments, all called Ortega's Place. Sons Manuel, Abel and Alberto run No. 2, No. 3 and No. 5, respectively, while Ortega's Place No. 4 is managed by daughter Ana.

Another son, David, who is president of the family corporation, is in charge of the pair of restaurants 13 miles north in Rosarito. Only a few blocks from each other along Rosarito's highway are Ortega's Cafe and another Ortega's Place, which also advertises itself as a piano bar.

The Ortegas' success reflects the attention and income from Baja visitors that is bringing changes to Puerto Nuevo. Last month a work crew began laying paving bricks on the first of the town's half-dozen dusty streets.

Also under construction is a roadside archway that will serve as an entrance to the village. Between the lobster restaurants are souvenir stands that have sprouted in once-vacant lots.

And you're certain to encounter the street kids, who eagerly direct visitors to parking places and volunteer to keep an eye on your vehicle.

The tiny six-pew chapel that serves Puerto Nuevo's few hundred residents is one small reminder of the tourist town's roots as a fishing village. An unpaved road also leads from the cliff-top cluster of homes and restaurants down to fishing boats on the beach.

Contract With Canneries

The ever-increasing demand for lobster and other seafood by visitors has forced restaurateurs here to contract with the big canneries in Ensenada for an adequate supply of crustaceans and fish. This is especially true between March and October, when lobster is off-season in the Pacific Ocean and must be caught across the peninsula in the Gulf of California.

Besides additional seafood items such as abalone and shrimp, some menus offer carne asada and other Mexican dishes as well as American-style steaks. But delicious langosta is still the No. 1 reason for a trip to Puerto Nuevo.

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