Every country, culture, and family has a person within it like Mave Ortega Greene (Ortega). The type of person that, upon meeting, you feel like you’ve known forever.
Mother. Wife. Chef. Businesswoman. Raconteur. Professional. Friendly. Quick with a story. And like any leader, she keeps her audience in rapt attention.
As the matriarch of the Ortega family, and, along with her daughter Natalie Greene (Greene), they are the dark-haired smiling faces of downtown Charles Town’s newest eatery—Ortega’s Taco Shop—and possibly a hint at the upwardly trending art, business, and cultural direction therein.
“We’re very, very excited—we are right in the center of things,” said Greene—who attended Jefferson High School and later graduated from Shepherd University. “This is a special time for us; the response has been outstanding. It’s a place you can come in and eat with your friends, or grab a quick snack, or pick up something for later. We’re able to offer a little bit of everything.”
A little over six weeks into service, it’s not uncommon to see a dozen-deep line at Ortega’s (100 W. Washington St.) throughout the day. Positions on the staff are fluid, from the kitchen to the front of the house, with employees often alternating quickly between the front-line customer experience and order-prep. At any given moment, Greene herself wears at least a half-dozen Ortega’s hats—telephone answerer, cashier, taco maker, prep, and possibly more—all with seemingly effortless aplomb.
On the inside, the atmosphere is bright and inviting, without being too fussy. The decor is elemental, with a relaxed mix of wood, metal, and open space. There are hints of the family’s Mexican heritage and namesake here and there, but more than anything, the look suggests inviting and modern with a bit of an ode to the past.
The building, Charles Washington Hall, is among Charles Town’s (and Jefferson County’s) more historic properties. The city completed a massive renovation in 2017, and the spacious venue now houses the Charles Town Visitors Center, organic grocer Bushel & Peck, and Ortega’s.
Those familiar with Ortega’s will find the menu has not changed much since moving from Ranson, where the business began in 2013. The restaurant boasts an emphasis on fresh, green-friendly ingredients, and the type of clean, portable preparation that is reflective of their Baja and Mexican heritage. Made fresh twice daily, and literally sampled by Ortega twice per day in two seated tastings, the menu is simple, with assorted burritos, salads, quesadillas, regular and smaller “street” tacos, and even a “mini” bag of chips—since the bigger one can be harder to finish in one sitting. Dessert offerings include churros, ice cream nachos, a Mave-inspired creation made with fried tortillas, chocolate syrup, and vanilla ice cream (and sprinkles).
“We don’t do the classic combination [dishes], like beans, rice, and enchiladas,” explained Ortega. “We do the rice and beans on the side, and then we put the tacos together and you make your own at the table with merriment, family, and friendship. It’s very important to me that customers get exactly what they want—a personal experience.”
As for the new location, she confirmed, “I like it. I have air conditioning and heating, which I did not have in Ranson. I have good foot traffic here downtown. I have all the secretaries, the banks, the court, the library. Everybody that lives and works downtown comes here to eat.”
To that end, Ortega’s has already tripled its business, which has a lot to do with Ortega’s above assessment, as well as free two-hour parking downtown and even free parking in the bank parking lot next door (when the bank is closed).
Ortega is also really excited about adding new menu items, which will comprise authentic family recipes. And to top it off, she’s zeroing in on delivery as soon as time, life, and business allows—likely through Grubhub.
Pride, History, and Legend
The Ortega family can trace its ancestry over 400 years back to Baja, the northern and westernmost of the 32 federal entities of Mexico. Her grandfather, General Feliz Margarito Ortega Aguilar (“He was a very passionate man. He loved his country and fought in the Revolution,” she said proudly…), married Catalina Nunes, her grandmother, and they had 10 children—the youngest of which was her father, Pedro Ortega.
“We have carried the name Ortega with pride, with history, with legend,” she added.
The pride shows in the way Ortega carries herself and guides the business. Once a jack of all trades with her hands in every aspect of daily operations, she’s decided to step back and focus on quality control. She can now easily be found talking to patrons out on the floor, peaking back into the spacious kitchen, or thinking of her next big recipe. All with a friendly smile, and a bit of panache.
But the Ortega’s story didn’t happen overnight; in fact, it followed a 27-year career that zig-zagged through San Diego and Texas, and finally to West Virginia. At 38, Ortega became a chef for several high-end hotels in San Diego, eventually switching from kitchens to hospitals and nursing homes. After ultimately moving to the Eastern Panhandle, she switched to retail work.
“Whatever I’ve done, it’s a customer service experience,” she pointed out. “Everyone is your customer and you serve them,”
Eventually, kids grew older, careers changed, and Ortega decided to revisit a dream that had been marinating in her mind for some time. “It was a dream I had, a little taco shop—a little taqueria,” she recalled.
And after nearly three decades working through a diverse career and cultivating numerous valuable experiences, she was ready to step into a role that fit not only her skill set, but carried with it a rich legacy. And thus, Ortega’s was born.
“I always had that in the back of my mind, and I didn’t let it go,” she noted.
A Cut Above
The official grand opening took place on July 12, with several local officials and luminaries in attendance for the ribbon-cutting and festivities. As the restaurant literally sold out of much of its food on the first day, a mariachi band in the courtyard serenaded the delighted patrons.
Bushel & Peck and Ortega’s appear to complement each other in many ways. Clients can float breezily through an opening from one business to the other. A mid-afternoon outing that starts off as a search for a carnitas street taco at Oretga’s might naturally turn into purchasing an organic, locally grown heirloom tomato from Bushel & Peck. And vice versa.
“It’s revitalizing—it’s great having foot traffic and meeting people who didn’t know we were here,” said Todd Coyle. “I think that was the point of having a restaurant like that here—so customers could look at both, and we could do joint promotions and work together.”
Coyle is the chief operating officer of Jefferson G.A.P. (Growers, Artists, and Producers) Coalition—a non-profit that oversees the local Farmers’ Market and administers to the grocery and its adjacent space. Hoping to attract a high-caliber local restaurant tenant, the coalition sent out requests for proposals, and after keen competition, Ortega’s was definitely a cut above the rest, he indicated.
“They were extremely professional—an established business within the area, had a good social media presence and a good [reputation] within the community.”
Relatedly, the appearance of Ortega’s in Charles Town’s main downtown corridor is perhaps a harbinger of the future of the street, and the greater downtown area as a whole.
“The Chamber welcomes Ortega’s moving into Charles Town and wishes them much success,” said Heather McIntyre, executive director at the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce. “It is always great to see businesses expand and prosper.”
Coyle added, “Moving down here just gave them more visibility, and they’ve shed a light on downtown. This is the continuation of an idea that a lot of people have been working on for downtown … just to build up the downtown businesses and revitalize. It had been sinking there for a few years, and a bunch of people who really cared started working on it. Trying to build it.”
Liz McDonald, owner of Dandridge Realty, a few hundred feet away across Washington Street, is an active member of the downtown business community, and also sees the appeal of having more engaging, high-quality eateries downtown.
“The working together between non-profit and corporate, and the local government, is impressive—taking a historic property and making it beautiful again. Having a vibrant downtown is a huge thing for people, especially when they’re moving in from the D.C. area. You want to find a place that has community, and great places to eat—and fresh, local food like Ortega’s has.”
Greene, the next generation of the proud Ortega lineage, agreed: “I think we’re taking baby steps to make this a better spot to eat, work, and live. And I’m very excited.”By David Gignilliat