Felisa Rogers drove from Oregon to Oaxaca (and back) this winter in search of the perfect no-nonsense torta. Here are a few of her favorites.
A torta in Mexico City
The delights of driving the length of Mexico are manifold, but in my world, the taco and the torta reign supreme. On a recent 6,500-mile odyssey to Mexico and back, an unspoken mission developed: I’d find the best tortas, from the best hole-in-the-wall torterias.
Many classy restaurants in Mexico serve tortas, or sandwiches, but I see no reason to order a torta at a nice restaurant. The primary point is the price—typically, any establishment in Mexico that calls itself a restaurant is going to charge three times as much as a torteria, a loncheria (lunch place), or a comedor (eatery). And secondly, there’s authenticity—“nicer” establishments will try to justify higher prices by monkeying around with presentation and ingredients. You do not want a “creative” torta; you want a no-nonsense torta for a third of the price.
No nonsense, however, doesn’t necessarily mean simple—it means authentic. Tortas can be simple, yes. A basic Mexican torta consists of a bolillo or telera (a crusty oblong roll), mayonnaise and lettuce, one or two fillings, and a selection of optional toppings: red and green salsa, roasted serranos, and escabeche (pickled chilies and carrots). Simple and delicious. But traditional tortas can also be elaborate: The most famous is the Cubana, piled to unmanageable heights with ham, roasted pork, milanesa (breaded beef or chicken cutlet), cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, pickled jalapeños, and avocado; some versions go on to include a fried egg, shredded chicken, refried beans, chorizo, and a hot dog. The reason to go traditional with these things is clear: With so many delicious variations out there, you could spend months eating your way through the basics without ever straying to such foodie thoughts as, Hmm, I wonder what this torta would taste like if it were drizzled with truffle oil?
SAN MIGUEL DE ALLENDE
San Miguel de Allende . Photo by Felisa Rogers
In Mexico, carts and shops that specialize in tortas abound; good tortas can also be found in comedors and fondas, or market food booths. Two of the best ones my husband and I ate on our journey were from hole-in-the wall shops in San Miguel de Allende in Guanajuato, a World Heritage site not known for its budget dining.
Lodged in a small colonial storefront, Torta Mundo (Umaron #29) is a no-frills joint that provides a welcome contrast to downtown San Miguel’s many boutiques and high-end margarita bars. The torteria is owned by an older couple; he cooks, and she does everything else. The walls are decorated with Catholic iconography, heavy on the suffering Jesus, and the tortas are similarly old-school: Twenty-five pesos (about US$1.95) gets you get a plump bolillo stuffed with crispy fried beef cutlet (milanesa), a creamy wedge of avocado, lettuce for extra crunch, and tangy jalapeño escabeche. Another 12 pesos (about a dollar) will buy a 16-ounce glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice.
Chorizo torta at El Tucan. Photo by Felisa Rogers
But even this delectable little prize was topped by the torta at El Tucan (Hernando Macias #56), another spot hidden among the showpiece town’s coffee bars and galleries. Three doors down they’ll charge you 60 pesos (about $US5) for a cappuccino, which you can sip in a pristine colonial courtyard landscaped with lilies and populated by Armani sunglass-wearing tourists from Mexico City.
But lo and behold, here is dingy El Tucan, a narrow stone hallway that leads back to a sunny courtyard where laundry hangs on lines. The kitchen is just a stove in the dining area, a big plate of enchiladas costs three bucks, and the waiter is the owner’s 10-year-old kid, who ran down to the corner tienda when we asked for beer. He returned with two ice-cold Victorias, and a few minutes later brought us our tortas: a sultry chorizo number layered with creamy avocado and pickled carrots and, for comparison, another torta de milanesa. We did not regret the repetition: This one was a work of art, delicious with the ultimate torta trifecta: crunch, succulence, and sabor.
HWY 175, OAXACA
One of the most interesting tortas we encountered was concocted at a rickety roadside stand perched above a dramatic jungle vista. We were lurching along Highway 175, which coils serpentinelike through the mountains that separate Ciudad de Oaxaca from the coast. After four hours of hairpin turns, we were ready for a cerveza and torta break. We drove past several likely establishments nestled in the subtropical pine forests, but the tiny hamlets passed in a flash, and backtracking on the narrow, shoulderless road was not an option.
We finally settled on a cluster of shacks with a particularly large pull-off. The only food option was an unnamed booth manned by a jovial guy named Lalo, who spoke English with startling American inflection. “What can I get you guys?” he asked. “I can make you a beef torta or a beef burrito.” Both options sounded a little vague, but we were really in no position to quibble.
Lalo pulled a vat of greasy ground beef from under the counter and then opened a can of refried beans while we looked on in mounting anxiety. As he spread cold canned beans on our bolillos, he told us that he’d gone to high school in the U.S. and stayed on, returning only two years ago when job opportunities in the States dried up. “Here I can own my own business, you know?” His young wife appeared carrying a toddler and three warm Coronas. “Sorry about the warm beer, man,” Lalo said, grinning as he shoved our sandwiches into a microwave oven perched precariously on a listing wooden shelf. “I wasn’t expecting you guys!”
While we ate, Lalo told us about his true passion: banda. On request, he played a DVD of his band, a bombastic 12-piece brass band in matching cowboy outfits, replete with pristine Stetson and metallic fuchsia shirts. Both the band and the tortas were surprisingly good: Cheese oozed from pillows of microwave-softened bread; the beef was pleasingly savory. Not the best tortas we ate on our trip, but definite points for personality.
Torta de polla at Comedor La Lupita. Photo by Felisa Rogers
A couple of months and many tortas later, we were sadly headed back north to the U.S. We spent one of our last Mexican nights in Mazatlan, Sinaloa, where we reveled in the crumbling glory of the legendary Hotel Bel Air. The next morning we headed out looking for food. After 12 blocks of gringo breakfast joints and Argentinean steak houses, the fanciness was finally subsumed by the blaring bustle of Mexican life, and I spotted it: Comedor La Lupita, a tiny room crowded with plastic tables and chairs, busy with locals on their way to work.
An elderly woman labored in a steaming kitchen presided over by a giant picture of San Judas de Tadeo, and despite the crowd, our breakfast of chilaquiles, hot chocolate, and tortas de pollo arrived in just minutes. The bread was perfect: soft, with a light dusting of flour on the toasty exterior, cushioning slices of bright tomato and thick shreds of succulent chicken. Well worth the trek, all 6,500 miles of it.
About the author: Felisa Rogers is a contributing writer for The People’s Guide to Mexico and writer/editor at the travel site thepeoplesguidetomexico.com.