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The Best Sandwich in San Francisco's Mission, Part 2: Mexican Sandwiches

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

I spent five weeks this summer living in San Francisco's Mission District, going to bars that let my dogs roam free, making plans for big hiking trips, and pretending that I was going to learn to surf. Instead, I mostly ate sandwiches. Lots of sandwiches. Over 50 of 'em. This week, I'm walking you through the best.

While San Francisco's Mission District may be more well known for its burritos and tacos, it's no slouch in the Mexican sandwich department, either. Today we continue our search for the best sandwich in San Francisco's Mission District with tortas and pambazos.

The Criteria

Though there are tortas available in most of the burrito joints that dot the Mission, we limited our search to shops that specialize in sandwiches. At each location, we tasted at least two options (when available), and always asked for recommendations from the house and/or regulars. Sandwiches were evaluated based on the quality of the bread, the flavor of the main filling, and the balance of the toppings.

The Best Torta: Rajas Con Queso, From La Torta Gorda

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The name of this 12-year-old Mission stand-by translates to the "The Fat Sandwich." It'd be an apt description for any of the 21 variations they have on their menu. Even if they served only their "junior"-sized versions, they could name the restaurant "The Not-Quite-Fat-but-Still-Big-Enough-to-Make-a-Large-Meal-and-Maybe-Leak-Out-Onto-Your-Hands-Just-The-Right-Amount Sandwich"

My favorite? La Torta Gorda's Rajas con Queso ($6.75/Jr. $8.95/Reg.). Strips of poblano pepper roasted until they're sweet and smoky that get smothered in melted Oaxaca cheese and queso fresco. Top that with some guacamole (a.k.a. nature's butter), a smear of refried beans, onions, pickled jalapeños, and a chipotle spread and, well, you've got a tasty number that can barely be contained by its paper wrapper.

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There's plenty to be said for the meat-based fillings as well; The Chorizo & Egg ($6.75/Jr. $8.95/Reg.), cooked with the eggs still slightly creamy and the chorizo just starting to ooze its fat, is particularly good. But you'd be doing yourself a disservice to dismiss the rajas based on its vegetarian status—it's one of the tastiest sandwiches you'll find in the neighborhood.

Make sure to take your sandwich to the back garden to enjoy it in some of that famous Mission sunshine while you sip on one of their fresh-blended juices.

Best Torta Runner Up: Chorizo Torta, From Tortas Los Picudos

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While not quite as messy, decadent, or all-around-fun as the sandwiches from La Torta Gorda, Tortas Los Picudos' Chorizo Tortas ($6.50) have the kind of perfect balance and structural integrity that inspires awe from engineers. It's rare to find a sandwich made of loose, crisply-fried sausage meat that holds together as you eat it, but through the clever use of a sour cream and queso fresco-based adhesive, they manage this trick deftly.

The Best Pambazo: Chorizo and Potato Pambazo from La Torta Gorda

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Only two of the torta shops we visited served a pambazo—a sandwich made by dipping a full formed torta into a bowl of red enchilada sauce—and once again, La Torta Gorda takes it with their Potato and Chorizo Pambazo ($6.95/Jr. $9.25/Reg.). Potato in a sandwich may seem like carb overload, and perhaps it is, but there's enough rendered chorizo fat seeping into those tender spuds to make them seem meaty. Crunchy romaine and sour cream brighten the whole thing up.

If you are brave, you can attempt to eat it with your hands, but the sauce-soaked bun will give in before you're half way through. That's okay, it tastes just as good with a fork.

Honorable Mentions

Best Bang for Your Buck: Torta Cubana, From That's It Market

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Anthony Bourdain outed this sandwich shop-in-a-liquor-store on No Reservations, but that doesn't seem to have changed their operation much on either front. Order their Torta Cubana ($10) and watch in awe as the griddle cook deftly lays out strips of bacon, split hot dogs, slices of ham, breaded beef cutlets, and pulled pork tinga onto the hot flat top to sizzle a bit as she fries up a chorizo and egg omelet. The eggs and all six meats—count 'em, that's six meats—get piled onto a split torta roll that's been toasted in a combo of butter and rendered bacon, ham, and chorizo fat, and spread with mayonnaise and guacamole. Don't forget the avocado slices and the cotija cheese, either.

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A slice of tomato and some shredded lettuce gets slipped in there somewhere to help you pretend that you're not about to stuff your gullet with one of the most ridiculously large sandwiches human ingenuity has wrought.

Hot damn, that's a big-ass sandwich was all I could think to myself as I saw it being made. Mggghfffhmmmgghmmmmmmnnnnnng was the only thing I heard in my head as I ate it. I'm not sure if it was the sound of smothered ecstasy or a cry for help from my innermost soul. Probably a bit of both.

Best Carnitas: Carnitas Torta, From La Palma Mexicatessen

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La Palma Mexicatessen is a Mission institution. Need fresh masa or homemade mole? Go no further, they've got you covered. This is one of the few places around where you can get tacos served on tortillas that are shaped by hand (not in a tortilla press!) and griddled on a comal to order. Their sandwiches ($6.75) are no slouch either.

You may like them for the generous hunk of queso fresco that comes tucked inside, or the fresh, actually ripe tomatoes. You may like them for their reasonable size and easy-to-bite wrapping. Or you may like them because La Palma makes the best carnitas of all the sandwich shops around—porky and tender, with just a hint of crispness around the edges. All of these are good reasons.

Most Tender Milanesa: Milanesa. From El Paraiso Cafe

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El Paraiso Cafe doesn't quite have the feel of a sandwich shop—you'll find more folks eating Salvadoran pupusas and grilled chicken-topped salads than sandwiches here—but locals seem to love their Milanesa Tortas ($6.50).

It's the only shop around that fries their pounded and breaded beef or chicken cutlets to order, and it makes a big difference. Ultra-tender and flavorful, the meat has a crisp, grease-free crust that makes for a sandwich that's daintier, neater, and somehow cleaner tasting than its competitors.

Sometimes I'm in the mood for cheese and flavor overload. Sometimes I'm in the mood for something a little lighter. El Paraiso is where to head when the latter inclination strikes.

More of San Francisco's Best Sandwiches!

See all of our San Francisco Sandwich Week coverage here!

About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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