Meet the Torta Ahogada, Guadalajara's Signature Sandwich

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The true story of the dunked sandwich. [Photographs: Tovin Lapin]

The torta ahogada, a salsa-drowned sandwich invented in Guadalajara, Mexico in the early 1900s, has risen along with its city of origin. The sandwich was the product of a slip of the hand, a mistake. But what a delicious mistake it was, the spark for a dish that slowly spread throughout the City of Roses like a fire jumping from rooftop to rooftop, eventually taking its place as one of the signature dishes of the booming metropolis.

Guadalajara has modernized and ballooned over the last 150 years, transitioning from a working-class trading hub known as the cradle of Mariachi music to a bustling cosmopolitan city referred to as the country's 'Silicon Valley.' But the pork-filled signature sandwich of the city, dunked in a pool of spicy salsa, has remained mostly unchanged. It's part of the city's heritage, a point of pride and right of passage for any Tapatio, as people from Guadalajara are called.

The torta ahogada is a sandwich that adds up to more than the sum of its parts. The spicy salsa, made from the more-hot-than-flavorful chile de arbol vinegar, cumin, black pepper and other spices, adds a kick but needs the addition of the mild, tomato based sauce with oregano and garlic to calm the heat with a complex set of rounder, sweeter flavors. The pork filling is marinated in garlic and citrus, cooked slowly, and then fried up until crisp. The meat soaks up the spicy salsa, and and the richness and fat of the meat balances the acidity of the spicy salsa. The crusty bread seems unremarkable on its own, but is essential to the dish's texture and balance, cutting the heat of the chilies and the bite of the raw or marinated onion garnish. Tortas ahogadas are the local go-to meal for clearing head colds, curing hangovers, and sweating out infections.

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The inventor of the torta ahogada died decades ago, but a link to the beginning of the simple sandwich still remains in the city center where his apprentice has been clocking in every morning for the last 55 years.

The torta ahogada ("drowned sandwich") began as a working man's lunch, almost exclusively sold from small stands on street corners and busy urban plazas.

Don Ignacio "Nacho" Saldaña was in his thirties when he started working for Luis De La Torre. De La Torre's father, Saldaña says, was a vendor in one of the city's central plazas, selling ordinary tortas. One day, Saldaña recounts, a customer requested a little bit of spicy salsa on his torta, but the senior De La Torre accidently dropped the whole sandwich in the container.

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"You drowned it!" the customer cried, before eating it anyway.

"Of course he ate it," Saldaña told me. "And he loved it. From then on De La Torre started selling tortas ahogadas with his son."

In 1953 Saldaña took a job working with the younger De La Torre, who had taken over the stand from his father. The stand was ideally situated on Calzada Independencia, a major thoroughfare. There at the corner of Madero, where there was a bus stop, many of the men who worked in the city center would stop for a torta. As word spread of the tortas bathed in salsa, imitators emerged, Saldaña says.

Saldaña learned the original torta ahogada recipe from the younger De La Torre, and by 1959, Saldaña had grown weary of taking orders and decided to start his own torta ahogada stand. In honor of De La Torre, whose stand was named Tortas Ahogadas El Güero, Saldaña dubbed his Tortas Ahogadas El Güerito.

After a few years running a corner stand, he squirreled away enough money to open a restaurant in the city's historic center at Madero and Independencia Streets, where he has satiated lunchtime appetites for more than five decades.

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Saldaña's new venture coincided perfectly with the rapid expansion of the torta's popularity in the 1960s. New stands mimicking the De La Torre original were popping up all over the city center, providing lunch to the growing masses of laborers feeding the thriving and rapidly industrializing city.

At 82, Saldaña moves a little slower today than he used to. The red and white paint on the restaurant's facade is peeling away, and the inside shows the wear of five decades of business, but his tortas have stood the test of time.

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According to Saldaña, a real torta ahogada is simple and adheres to a few strict guidelines: You must have a birote, a long, flat roll, with an airy, fluffy center and a crust robust enough to withstand submersion. There are two types: first, the Fleiman, which is softer on the outside, pointed at both ends and has a smooth exterior. The birote salado, which has a flattened end, is harder on the outside and has a more golden, crunchy exterior, which is salted. The roll maintains a little crunch on the outside when your teeth first sink in, before it gives way to the spongy inside saturated with salsa. Too soft and the whole thing falls apart when dunked, too hard and it won't properly absorb the salsa.

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More rules follow: The meat must be pork carnitas. In Saldaña's book, beans do not belong. The spicy sauce must be made with chile de arbol de yahualica, a small, skinny, fire-truck red chili with thin green stems that provides mid-level heat and a nutty flavor. The sandwich should be well drowned—"bien ahogada"—immersed end-to-end in first the spicy stuff and then the milder tomato-based version. The sandwich is served in a shallow bowl with raw and marinated onions and lime on the side. A spoon is provided for scooping sauce from the bowl and prodding stray onions back into position, but the proper way to eat the sandwich is with your hands.

Don Saldaña may not consider them authentic tortas ahogadas, but variations on the classic are now ubiquitous. Some put their twist on the traditional recipe, adding a smear of refried beans to the roll before drowning, marinating the pork differently or tweaking the salsas. Others go further, substituting beef, chicken, shrimp, or even panela cheese for the pork. It all reflects an urban area of 6 million people that has grown too big for just one version of the emblematic sandwich.

Vendors can be found all over Guadalajara: street-side torta stands and restaurants dot the city, and each one has its champion crowning it the best. "Tortas ahogadas in Guadalajara are one of those things where if you ask 20 people their favorite, you'll get 20 different answers," says Miguel Cortes, a born and bred Tapatio and torta ahogada lover.

Here are three of my favorite spots for tortas ahogadas in Guadalajara, starting with the original recipe guarded by Saldaña.

Tortas El Güerito

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This spot is a journey into Guadalajara's culinary history, and Saldaña likes it that way. They serve the same dishes and drinks as they always have, including chabela, a beer-based Bloody Mary-like drink made with Clamato, Worchester sauce, lime juice, and Tabasco.

Since the doors opened in 1959, Saldaña says he's seen bull fighters, professional wrestlers, footballers and movie stars come through for a taste of the classic. At lunch time, people crowd in, filling tables and quickly immersing themselves in a torta that packs a tear-inducing right hook of a picante punch.

At El Güerito there are no bells and whistles. No options for torta fillings, and it's frowned upon to ask for the torta "medio ahogada" (half-drowned) instead of "bien ahogada" (well-drowned). The bread is just right, not too big to get your hands around, offering an outer crunch and inner chili-absorption that makes the ideal vessel for the braised and fried, mouthwateringly tender pork carnitas. The chile arbol salsa is powerful, but not overwhelming. After the first spicy bite your mouth adapts, and then you notice other flavors: warm garlic, bay leaf, and a tinge of citrus. For my money, nothing beats this meal.

Tortas Ahogadas Chimbombo

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In Tlaquepaque, a town known for its crafts boutiques just outside Guadalajara, Alfredo Aguilar Sanchez has been making tortas ahogadas next to the beautiful Jardin Hidalgo plaza for 20 years. He wakes up at 4:30 a.m. to prepare the pork and salsa for his sandwiches, which he serves seven days a week from a three-seat stainless steel cart with a view of the plaza's fountains.

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Instead of raw or marinated white onions, Aguilar Sanchez uses pungent raw red onions, placed on the side for the customer to add to their taste. The pork is roasted with marjoram according to a recipe Aguilar Sanchez learned from a childhood friend. These tortas are not quite as spicy as others around town, but that allows for an appreciation of the more subtle flavors of the sandwich.

Tortas Toño

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This bright and orderly chain of torta restaurants reflects the more modern side of Guadalajara, especially the throngs of young people entering a workforce backed by Mexican branches of large multinational companies who are catalysts for the city's boom of glitzy gyms and restaurants.

Tortas Toño founder Santiago Barba has said his mission with the street stand-turned-restaurant chain was to "elevate" the torta ahogada and bring it to more people. Customers can pick from six different fillings, including traditional carnitas, as well as cheese, shrimp, chicken, and beef tongue. Next they hit the self-service fixings bar where they pile on as much of the hot and sweet salsas, marinated onions, raw onions, cabbage, beans, and lime as they please. Traditionalists may scoff, but this is the place for vegetarians and pork avoiders to get their ahogada fix.

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The birotes at Tortas Toño, which opened in 1990, are a bit larger than what's found elsewhere, allowing customers more room for their concoctions. At Tortas Toño the spicy salsa is robust, with a pungent garlic flavor in addition to the chili. The marinated white onions, though, are the star of the fixings bar. They add tang to the sandwich without having to pour on the sauce too heavily, risking the integrity of the whole thing.