Identifying the best torta in a city full of torta restaurants, some with dozens of options on the menu, is no easy task, but if there's one thing I'm good at, it's very carefully eating my way through dozens of sandwiches. And my mom thought I'd never amount to anything.
Tortas—essentially Mexican sandwiches—come in many forms, but there are a few common threads that run through them. The most traditional versions from Puebla feature thinly pounded and breaded beef milanesa or perhaps cold cuts or head cheese layered onto a soft, crusty roll called a telera. The roll is spread with refried beans, often some kind of spicy element like pickled jalapeños, a chili sauce, or chipotle peppers, cheese, onions, and avocado. At least 'round these parts, it's not uncommon to see tortas made with tomatoes or lettuce slipped inside as well, and if you're buying your torta from a taqueria, chances are the meat options will be heavily influenced by the taco options.
Of course, all of this is pretty academic. Whatever you put in a torta, it has to taste good. Do the ingredients come together as a harmonious and evocative whole? Great, that's the sandwich for me.
All told, I visited over two dozen torta shops and taquerias in my search, and came to the unsurprising conclusion that not all tortas are created equal. In many shops, they're an afterthought, something quick and easy to make out of a handful of taco meat and a sloppy bun. Imbalanced sandwiches with bland toppings or dry, reheated meat were plentiful, but they only made the great ones—and there were quite a few great ones—stand out even more.
Surprisingly—and I'm trying to nip any "but what about [X] place!"-style comments in the bud here—none of the tortas that I tried in the heavily Mexican East Bay neighborhoods of San Antonio and Fruitvale made the cut. Head over there and you'll find a lot of decent sandwiches from places like La Torta Loca, Tacos El Grullo, or one of the Tacos Sinaloa outposts, but none reach the upper echelons of sandwich greatness. For my money, Berkeley is the place to head for the finest tortas in the Bay Area, though the Mission and down the peninsula both put up a good fight for Mexican sandwich supremacy as well.
Here are my favorite sandwiches, in very rough order from best to still-amazing-but-not-quite-the-best. Even the last sandwich on this list is worth a drive.
Torta de Chorizo From Taqueria Talavera in Berkeley
Normally I expect to find the best Mexican lunches in the grimy hole in the wall with vats of pig parts bubbling away in the back. Taqueria Talavera is the polar opposite. Brightly lit, spotlessly clean, filled with families, children, and an excellent salsa bar, they nevertheless make my favorite torta in the Bay Area. It comes with an extra-thick smear of refried beans, plenty of pickled jalapeño peppers, avocado, onions, and cilantro, and crema. You get your choice of meats stuffed in there, but what you want is the spicy, well-charred chorizo that gets bound together with a handful of oozy, melted jack cheese and a vinegary red chili sauce. It's a mess, for sure, but a delicious one.
Torta de Carne Asada From Casa Latina in Berkeley
Originally Casa Latina, a bakery in Berkeley, wasn't even on my radar. My wife Adri and I stumbled into it for a quick lunch after a shopping spree at the Spanish market a few doors down. Boy am I glad we stumbled. Our lunch consisted of three excellent tacos with high quality juicy grilled meats and flavor-packed salsas.
Those same meats make an appearance in Casa Latina's tortas, which come with avocado, shredded lettuce, tomato, jalapeños, crema, and melted jack cheese on an impressive house-baked bun. The tender and smoky carne asada is my meat of choice, and it comes out a nice pink shade of medium (a rarity in Mexican restaurants). Squirt some of their fresh salsas into the sandwich as you eat and don't forget to order horchata. Like the bread, it's the best I've had in the Bay Area, perhaps even the world.
Torta de Milanesa From Rincon Sabroso in Mountain View
Milanesa tortas can be somewhat spartan affairs with thin, thin pieces of breaded fried beef and not enough moist toppings to hold everything together. That's not a problem at Rincon Sabrosa, where the milanesa comes with two generous slices of meat laid on a bed of melted cheese and topped with mashed avocado, onions, tomatoes, and lettuce dressed in a bright red salsa. This sandwich is a two-hander, so hold on tight.
Torta de Chilorio From Nopalito in the Haight and Inner Sunset
Chilorio is difficult to describe but easy to understand. Made by slowly braising pork, then shredding it into a chili sauce and crisping the whole thing up, it makes for a tasty, if messy torta filling. Nopalito pairs their cumin-packed chilorio patties with avocado, refried pinquito beans, jack cheese, onion, crema, a spicy jalapeño salsa, and a pile of crunchy cabbage slaw. It's the kind of sandwich you get nine months after a sloppy Joe, a torta, and a Rachel stumble home together with questionable intents and loose morals.
Yes, the sandwich costs $10, which is pricier than any other on this list, but for that you also get a big handful of homemade potato chips, a bowl of Nopalito's awesome spicy baked chickpeas, and table service to boot. Not a bad deal all in.
Torta de Rajas con Queso at La Torta Gorda in the Mission
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? The rajas con queso. 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.
Torta de Pernil From Tortas Los Picudos in the Mission
Just down the street from La Torta Gorda is Tortas Los Picudos, serving up a similar-looking menu, but quite a different sandwich experience altogether. Where Torta Gorda's tortas are sloppy with tons of moist ingredients, Los Picudos' tortas are more carefully constructed with shredded lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and crema. Any of the sliced or grilled meats are great, but the pernil—slow-roated shredded pork shoulder—or the chorizo provide the most moisture, flavor, and balance to the meal. Don't forget to order a glass of fresh-squeezed fruit and vegetable juice to wash it down.
Torta de Milanesa From Tortas Boos Voni in South San Francisco
I swear, every customer of Tortas Boos Voni in South San Francisco seems to be a kid who is perpetually hanging out after school, whether or not school actually just ended, or even whether it's a school day or not. But if those little students have learned one thing right it's how to select a sandwich. The massive tortas from Boox Voni may seem a little overly bready at first, and they could take a few lessons in their ingredients distribution process (I had one sandwich that had avocado only on one side), but there's plenty of flavor hiding between those buns, and good salsa covers a host of sins.
Torta de Milanesa From La Casita Chilanga in Redwood City
This roadside favorite in the Mexican section of Redwood City is most known for their giant Cubano-style torta, which packs every single one of the dozen or so meat offerings they list into one mega sandwich. Big sandwiches are all well and good, but their signature chipotle aioli spread is so damn tasty that I prefer to take a daintier approach, like the beef milanesa. The sandwich is stacked high with avocado, onion, queso fresco, refried beans, meat, onions, and cream, them compressed on a panini press, concentrating all the flavor into a neat, portable package.
Cubano Torta From That's It Market in the Mission
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 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.
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.