Road Food: Torta Round-Up

A classic torta de milanesa with escabeche sits on a bright red table.

torta de milanesa at ‘Pa Las Tortas Mias

A good torta is a thing of beauty. And in Mexico, a good torta is not hard to find. Any self-respecting Mexican city boasts hundreds of torta shops: from the steaming fondas of the mercado to the tiny tiled diner tucked between the behemoths of the business district. Each of these establishments has its own tricks, but seldom do you see drastic variations. You have your torta de pierna, your torta de milanesa, your torta de jamon, your torta cubana, your torta de chorizo…Your possible toppings are lettuce, tomato, onions, avocado, pickled jalapenos, mustard, mayo, and salsa, usually on the side. A torta is not a place to mess around with ingredients. Artistry is expressed in subtle variations in ratios and in the treatment of existing ingredients—not by getting fancy and, say, slathering the bread with lemon zest.

Technically, a torta is a sandwich made on a french-style roll, which has many regional variations and names but can generally be called a bolillo. But in truth, like all foods of mythos, the torta is an equation, a precise balance of texture and crunch and tang. Bolillo + filling + condiments/toppings. A perfect torta is achieved when the elements sing a perfect three part harmony.

I only recall eating one torta I would classify as bad, and it wasn’t that bad. I don’t know how this statistic is even possible, as I have eaten thousands of tortas in my life, from hundreds of torta shops. Evidently some kind of economic law is at work here: The Mexican consumer doesn’t suffer a sub-par torta. The Mexican consumer also doesn’t suffer an expensive torta. Multiple fillings cost more, and you might pay up to 45 pesos (3.65 USD) for a lush cubana loaded with ham, roasted pork, and the works. But you can usually find a perfectly good torta de pierna (a sencilla, or a torta with only one major filling) for around 25 pesos (2 USD). In addition to pork, this so-called sencilla will contain lettuce, tomato, onion, pickled jalapeños, and about half an avocado, and it’ll probably be served with two homemade salsas. Have I mentioned how big bolillos are?

Naturally, on this trip I plan on eating as many tortas as possible. Here’s the stats so far:

Torta #1-Loncheria Los Mismos  Juan Aldama, Zacatecas

I’m usually a torta de milanesa girl, but this time I elected to order a torta de pierna because the pierna is pre-cooked and I was famished. A round-faced guy in his early 20s, the cook wore a pristine white apron and a friendly smile. The loncheria was a Mexican take on a 50s diner, the tiled lunch counter flanked by bright yellow stools. And the torta was damn good. The roll wasn’t quite crunchy enough for my tastes, and the pork was a little dry, but the flavor of the meat was exquisite: carnitaesque. Washed down with some salsa verde and an ice cold Victoria, this meal definitely hit the spot.

Score: 8

Torta #2-‘Pa Tortas Las Mias  Zacatecas, Zacatecas

I was initially suspicious of the shop’s sign, a printed banner of a cartoon chef, and a little too new and glossy for my tastes, but this place turned out to be the real deal. We were the first customers of the day and at the outset the cook, a pale and regal middle-aged woman, was no-nonsense and a bit grim. She softened up when she heard us eating: we attacked her milanesa tortas with a chorus of grunts and exclamations that formed a symphony ala Steve Rogers. When she cleared our plates she asked, deadpan, “Was it good?” Long answer: Thin beef cutlets fried to a savory crisp and topped with avocado, tomatoes, homemade escabeche, and a fluff of shredded lettuce, all encased in the perfect bolillo: crusty but not tough to eat, with an immensely satisfying chewy interior. Short answer: Si!

Score: 10

Torta #3- Torta Mundo  San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato

A hole-in-the-wall in a town full of fancy restaurants, Torta Mundo is one of my favorite San Miguel locales. Run by an aging husband-and-wife team (he is the cook), the shop is located in a narrow Colonial on Umaran street and decorated with a heavily Catholic motif. As I’ve come to expect, my milanesa torta was wicked good: a crusty bolillo, a particularly smoky salsa, a thick, creamy wedge of avocado  in perfect balance with the crisp beef. I washed it down with a large glass of fresh-made carrot juice (15 pesos), and I felt satisfied with my place in the world.

Score: 9

Torta #4 -Tortitlan  San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato

A bustling joint with bright pink and orange walls, a fast-food style menu with pictures, and an unusually large staff, Tortitlan has three San Miguel locations. We ate at the shop closest to the mercado. Here’s where the equation nature of the perfect torta comes into play. I couldn’t pin-point anything wrong with my milanesa torta: the bread was decent, the milanesa tender, the salsas tasty, the lettuce crunchy. But somehow the overall result was underwhelming. Good, but not memorable. Rich said pretty much the same thing about his torta cubana. Our large glasses of fresh-squeezed orange juice (15 pesos), however, were delightful.

Score: 7

Torta #5–El Tucan  San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato

A hole-in-the-wall located across the street and down a little from the Bellas Artes, El Tucan is unassuming in the extreme. We sat down at one of three metal card tables, where we were greeted by a kid, who took our orders and then ran to get an older guy, presumably his dad. The kid brought us some Victorias from a store down the street and we sat in the shady alcove waiting for our sandwiches and enjoying a quintessentially San Miguel moment: the smell of old stone, and the light shining in the courtyard behind the restaurant, where bright songs birds hopped in metal cages. And the tortas? This torta pushed the limits of the ten point scale. I feel like I am running out of adjectives to describe milanesa sandwiches at this point, so I may have to switch it up a little: muy sabrosa, guey!

Score: 10

8 Responses to “Road Food: Torta Round-Up”

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  1. -El Codo- says:

    HOME MADE “SUPERBOWL SUNDAY” TORTISIMO

    IMPORTANT: Really sharp knives for slicing ingredients thin. One serrated bread knife.

    Start with a full blown baguette. Slice carefully lengthwise. I use a pair of one by two pine slats I place parallel to the torta to maintain an even slice as I follow them with the knife. A serrated bread knife works best.

    AT THE TIENDA
    4 oz sliced ham, Sliced bacon, a couple of eggs, lettuce, blood red tomatoes, ripe avocado, manchego cheese, a small bag of pitted olives, green or black. Spicy mustard if they have it. Olive oil, apple cider vinegar or Balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper. A tiny can of chilies rajas. Some tiendas sell baguettes, if not, it’s time to head to the panaderia.

    AT HOME
    Boil the two eggs. Slice one large or two small tomatoes as thin as sliced bacon, scoop out the avocado and mash. Slice the manchego cheese thin, fry bacon crisp, shred the lettuce, slice the canned chilies rajas as skinny as you can get them. Slice the pitted olives, peel the eggs and slice.

    SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED
    Lay out the baguette halves. Smear thickly with mayo. Place sliced egg on one of the halves. On the other half, lay on the sliced ham, then the cheese. Smear the avocado paste onto the cheese. On the other baguette half, crumble up the bacon and sprinkle it on thick. Lay the sliced chiles rajas on the bacon bits. Pinch the lettuce and mound it atop the bacon bits. Next sprinkle apple cider vinegar over the lettuce, follow with the bits of olive.

    JOINING SUB ASSEMBLY (A) WITH SUB ASSEMBLY (B)
    Slide one half parallel to the other. Place one hand on the far side of the left half sub assembly and the other hand on the far side of the right hand sub assembly. LIFT! SLAP THEM TOGETHER! Then lay the monster back onto the counter. Nobody said this was going to be neat.

    Slice the baguette into six-inch segments. I use extra super long polillos (toothpicks) to pin the sandwich together. Warn your guests about the toothpicks.

    Excellent with Negro Leon, Indio or Negro Modelo!

  2. Maybemayhem says:

    Oh I love to hear you write about food. It’s culinary pornography. Could you enlighten a mostly vegetarian gringa about a couple of terms please?
    torta cubana, torta de pierna (leg, right?) , and torta de milanesa… what are the differences between these?
    Beef, or pork, cut or style of cooking? Gracias. XOXO

    • -El Codo- says:

      “Culinary Pornography”

      Gracias Maybemayhem!

      You made my day, and possibly my week! Jajajajajajajajaja!

    • churpa says:

      A torta cubana has ham and additional pork. A torta de pierna contains pork haunch. A torta de milanesa contains a beef cutlet. As for vegetarian tortas…if you eat eggs you can get egg tortas, and cheese tortas with avocado are tasty as well. I’m assuming.

Trackbacks

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  4. […] but you can find cheap, excellent food at the market and at hole-in-the-wall torta joints such as Torta Mundo and El Tucan. When you’re not eating, lazing about,  or enjoying the people watching at the famous […]