Some of Tico Ortega’s fondest memories are of watching his father make Cuban comfort food in their family kitchen.
Ortega was born in Johnstown, but his father is a native Cuban who has spent much of his culinary career introducing people to a tastes of his home country – dishes such as black beans and rice, and flavorful, meat-filled empanadas.
“The memories are so strong ... I can still taste it,” Ortega said. “His passion for cooking really grew on me.”
That passion led the Salix man and his wife, Brittany, to open Ortega’s Cuban Kitchen at 603 Grove Ave. in the Moxham section of Johnstown.
Behind walls decorated with Cuban art and generations-old photographs, Ortega is making a full menu of sandwiches and other dishes, such as yellow rice, Spanish coleslaw and empanadas – beef-filled dough pockets that are a staple in many Latin cuisines.
Every dish is made with Ortega’s special recipes, he said. Sometimes it is a fusion with other styles.
“Even my Cuban sandwich has my own twist to it,” he said, noting that other variations on the menu include a pastrami-topped “Reuben Cuban,” and the “Cuban BBQ Meatball.”
The latter item is a meatball hoagie made with Cuban seasonings and topped with Ortega’s own barbecue sauce, he said.
He said he makes his empanada dough every morning and bakes them instead of frying “because it’s healthier.”
Try new dishes
While Ortega grew up on his father’s pork and beef dishes, he said he’s a vegetarian these days.
For many of his dishes, he relies on friends, neighbors and sometimes complete strangers for feedback before adding an item to his rotation.
“(Opening a restaurant) is sort of a four-year process for me,” he said.
For years, Ortega worked for a door manufacturer and would whip up dishes for his co-workers to try.
“If I make something new, I’ll pass it out to 10 people and see what they think,” he said. “If all 10 don’t like it, I don’t make it again.”
Ortega said he plans to expand his menu in the months ahead to add other beloved Cuban dishes such as Papas Rellenas – stuffed potato balls.
It has been more than a decade since Johnstown was home to a Cuban restaurant, and Ortega said he’s hopeful the community will embrace his spin on the cuisine.
“Cuban food is flavorful food,” he said. “There’s nothing else quite like it here.”