Monday, March 21, 2011

A Proper Torta

The Mexican torta, which as my readers know is Mexico's gift to mankind, is one of the greatest sandwiches in the world, if not the very best. I contend it is greater than the hamburger because the torta is a versatile vessel. Like the taco, another food of genius, the torta can contain pretty much anything you want inside, as long as it's coherent with Mexican food flavors. You can't have a torta de sushi but you can have a torta de tamal.

Notice the thin layers in the torta de milanesa on the right.
However, you have to know how to build it. It's not a free for all.  But this is where gringos miss the point about Mexican food. It's not a mountain of beans and shredded lettuce. There is a method to our culinary genius and you just don't get it.
Recently, I had an offensive torta experience at Pinche Taquería in New York City. There are many reasons to complain about the way this place sells their tortas:

1. Tortas are flexible and versatile. So the customer should be able to order a torta of ham with cheese or with egg or with whatever we damn well please, as long as it is coherent. These people won't do that for you. You can only choose from their meats. They will not make a ham and egg torta for you. This runs against the philosophy of Mexican food.
2. If every ingredient explodes out of the torta when you bite into it, the thing has not been properly assembled. A torta is a layered affair, not a hodgepodge of anything you can find in your fridge. And someone should declare a moratorium on shredded lettuce or shredded cabbage in Mexican food in the US. I don't know where you got that from. If I order a roast chicken torta and I can barely find the chicken among the shrubbery, this is not good. By the way, that chicken was unrecognizable and cut in little chunks.
3. I find it appalling that instead of tomato slices, these people use tomato chunks.
4. I like queso Oaxaca as much as anybody, but it has no place in cubes inside a torta de pollo asado.
Even with these awful mistakes, this torta was a thousand times better than any regular deli sandwich. Because it had good beans, and mild jalapeños and avocado.
Now, there are different torta assembling techniques, but what you have to know is that you layer the ingredients, which should be kind of flat or thin. That's why cubes of things don't work. See exhibit A above.
You can make hot tortas and room temperature tortas.
Imagine that you want a ham and cheese torta. You get bolillo o telera bread (Portuguese rolls are perfect). You slice the bread in 2 halves and heat it in on a grill.

At fabulous Tortas Don Polo (there's a branch in the Mexico City airport, you lucky travelers), they heat everything in the grill; the ham, they melt the cheese, etc.

Tortas Don Polo. Since 1956. Now at the airport.
You may spread some butter and/or mayo on the bread. 
Then spread refried beans on both halves, not arctic cold from your fridge, and not whole beans like in the offending torta above.  It should be at least room temperature.
Layer some avocado slices, the ham with melted cheese, thin tomato slices, jalapeños or chipotles according to your tolerance for spice. Lettuce is optional, but if you are going for it, it better be minimal. It's only there for crunch, so no arugula (like they do at Café Habana in Soho). I've never seen a torta with shredded cabbage in my life. Some people add onion.
The cheese can actually be American cheese or Oaxaca cheese. I like American.
The key is not to put a pound of meat inside. A few thin slices will do. The idea is small layers of many flavors, as opposed to one overpowering flavor surrounded by ineffectual decoration. A good torta should be a manageable affair and an explosion of flavors and textures in your mouth, not on your shirt.

Half eaten Don Polo torta de jamón con queso.
Since I arrived in 1992, my dream is to open a tortería in New York City.
Any venture capitalists out there?

By the way, yesterday I caught a couple of minutes of that aberration on TV, America's Next Best Restaurant.  Most of the food presented was disgusting chazerai. Absolute cluelessness and horrible concepts. This program is a crime.


  1. "And someone should declare a moratorium on shredded lettuce or shredded cabbage in Mexican food in the US". Amen to that. Melted cheese on everything "Mexican" annoys me as well.

    There's a "Mexican" place in town that was voted "Best Mexican", so when we moved here, we had to go check it out. It wasn't Mexican, it was quasi-TexMex and even then, Taco Bell is so much better (yes, there you have it, I'm a Mexican who has had Taco Bell!). I had a tostada and it was buried under lettuce and the tortilla was soggy under all the melted cheese. What tostada has melted cheese???

    And yes, I also saw some of that show last night. You should send your ideas for next season (I'm sure there will be one, Americans love these competition shows nowadays!)... I'd definitely tune in to see your torta concept! :)

  2. Dear Super Babe! My tortería concept is never going to win because there's no gimmick. The place would look like a bathroom (white tiles), have fluorescent lighting and there would be no torta de tofu. It wouldn't fly in the land of Red Lobster and Appleby's. But I appreciate your support!

  3. Torta de tofu sounds good though :) Or torta de tempeh :) There was actually a really good place in town, owned by a Tex-Mex lady, who had really, really good meat and veggie sandwiches... I smiled with the fluorescent lighting... and of course, you would have to have either plastic bags with water or better yet, the blue light to kill the flies that would have to be flying around!!! :) Ahh... I so would like to have a quesadilla de huitlacoche right now!!! Or a Gordita Don~a Tota with nopalitos! Sigh.

  4. Anonymous1:06 AM

    delicious,delicious. eagerly awaiting tomorrow to taste big telera bread mouthful