Monday, June 17, 2024

My big, fat, Mexican sandwich: tortas tantalize the taste buds

I’m ashamed to say I’d lived in Mexico for quite some time before I had my first torta; my snobby I-don’t-eat-white-bread self wouldn’t allow me to look beyond the outer layer of what turned out to be a delicious, many-faceted meal in a bun.

Since that first time (at Sefe’s in Mazatlán, where the tortas are actually rather tame), I’ve come to love these big, fat, messy sandwiches and realized there’s admirable method to their madness.

Each aspect of a torta’s construction is carefully considered to allow the best flavor and optimal texture of every ingredient, individually and collectively, to shine. Sometimes that kind of culinary expertise comes from schooling; other times it comes from a simple love of eating and lots of experience with a range of common ingredients that, when combined together, tantalize the taste buds and satisfy the tummy.

Tortas are what fuel hard-working construction laborers, schoolkids hungry after an afternoon of classes and employees facing an often 10-hour workday. It’s a carb load and a protein boost, perfect for breakfast, lunch or dinner.

The best way to eat any kind of torta is to order it “con todo,” with everything. The basics might be the same — a fluffy white roll spread with butter, margarine, mayo and/or refried beans and then stuffed with meats and with cooked, marinated and/or raw veggies, plus an array of dressings. But wherever you go in Mexico will have its own signature torta style. (Which is a good thing!)

The torta ahogada smothers the entire sandwich in spicy sauce.
The torta ahogada smothers the entire sandwich in spicy sauce.

Like tacos, these should be explored and savored while traveling here. Of special note is Guadalajara’s torta ahogada (“drowned torta”), so named because it’s smothered in a spicy red sauce.

Tortas can be hot — served fresh off the griddle or grilled and then wrapped in foil, which steams them into something else altogether — or cold. The soft white bolillo (like a baguette) or telera (a flatter, wider roll) turns into a crispy-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside, mouthwatering wonder once it’s pressed onto the grill.

Next come the meats and cheeses, grilled separately and then quickly added to the roll, followed by veggies, peppers and sauces.

Use the list below as a starter for what to put on your torta — or just head to your neighborhood lonchería or tiendita and buy one.

  • Milanesa. A pounded-thin, lightly breaded, crispy chicken cutlet
  • Chorizo. Mexican sausage in the casing or loose and ground
  • Albóndigas (meatballs)
  • Camarones. Grilled, sautéed or battered and fried shrimp
  • Eggs. Hard-boiled, fried or scrambled
  • Meat. Almost any kind: chicken, cochinita pibil (slow-roasted pork), pork shoulder (pierna), carne asada
  • Jamón. We’re talking lunch-meat ham
  • Tocino (bacon)
  • Cheese. You want a mild melting type: quesillo (Oaxaca cheese), manchego, chihuahua
  • Grilled: poblano peppers, onions, mushrooms, tomatoes, nopales (cactus), even potatoes
  • Raw: lettuce, tomatoes, red onion, green onion, jalapeños, cilantro, avocado
  • Pickled: onions, jalapeños (or any other pepper), nopales, tomatoes
  • A squeeze of fresh lime on top

While tortas are usually named after their main ingredient (i.e., torta de huevo, torta de adobo, torta de jamón), they always include a mélange of other ingredients as well. Provecho!

Tortas are generally made on some kind of thick white bread.
Tortas are always made with rolls.

Basic Torta

Feel free to improvise! Cook the meat yourself or buy something already cooked from a local taco stand or tiendita. Some casual restaurants also sell kilos of grilled meat.

  • ¾ lb. meat, cooked and chopped (See list above. For milanesa, leave whole.)
  • ½ cup mayonnaise
  • 1 onion, sliced
  • 2-4 plum tomatoes, sliced
  • 1 cup shredded lettuce
  • 1 cup shredded cheese (see list above)
  • 1-2 avocados
  • 7 oz. can marinated jalapeños
  • 1 Tbsp. butter, vegetable oil or manteca
  • Salt
  • 2 bolillos or teleras
  • Optional: 1½ cups refried beans; foil, parchment or wax paper

Assemble all ingredients before starting to cook. Heat butter/oil/manteca to medium-hot. Add meat, cook and stir 5 minutes to brown. Set aside.

Slice roll in half and generously spread mayonnaise on inside of both halves. Over medium heat, toast the bread on both sides in the same pan you browned the meat in, pressing down with a spatula. Remove from heat. Now work quickly to construct the torta while the meat and bread are hot.

If using refried beans, spread on bottom half of roll. Top with meat, then cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion and jalapeños. On top half of the bread, place avocado slices, mushing them into the bread a little. Sprinkle with salt.

Carefully place the top half of the roll onto the torta, then press gently to connect. For an authentic experience, wrap in foil, parchment or wax paper and peel down as you eat.

Janet Blaser is the author of the best-selling book, Why We Left: An Anthology of American Women Expats, featured on CNBC and MarketWatch. A retired journalist, she has lived in Mexico since 2006.

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