Sometimes a place just catches your eye, especially as you push through the vast expanse of the San Fernando Valley, north of Los Angeles. There are a lot of beiges, browns and off white tones up here; a lot of bulk furniture stores and secret eats, too. As I head south on Vineland Avenue in sun-bleached North Hollywood recently, I was caught by a roadside food stall painted red, white and blue.
These aren't patriotic colors—at least not in the way you'd expect. The food stall is tri-colored in favor of the Guadalajara soccer club Chivas, which makes it a bit of Mexican patriotism, if anything. There are all sorts of hand-painted emblems and mascots portraying their love for Chivas, while any other available space is reserved for a few choice words: Tortas Ahogadas, Barbacoa and Tacos Dorado de Papa. Even in black and white, words like that stand out.
To be clear, the name of the shack itself is Tortas Ahogadas La Ramadita, or perhaps just Tortas Ahogadas, which literally translates to 'drowned sandwiches' in Spanish. As a rule of thumb, it's generally a good thing when a Mexican restaurant chooses to put their specialty dish somewhere in the name, but it's another altogether when the restaurant's name itself is the food.
Still, there are tacos on the menu (several in fact), so in due diligence I turned the car around and squeezed into one of the small spaces directly in front. There's not really anywhere else to go, actually, since the rest of the dusty lot is taken up by a similarly-painted canopy area that provides a little shade and lots of park bench seating. All of the ordering is done through a small window, about nose-length away from the wall that describes the six or seven items available for order. Want a drink with whatever you're planning on eating? You'll have to turn around, suck in your belly and barely open the mini fridge behind you. It's a tight space, so it makes sense that the menu would be so limited.
Really, though, limited is the wrong word. There are Soft and Hard-Shelled Tacos that come with either carnitas, potatoes or barbacoa; there are Tostadas that come drowning in an array of carnitas bits (more on that in a moment) and there are the namesake Tortas Ahogadas. This is true Guadalajaran food, which may be small on space but is seriously big on flavor.
The soft barbacoa tacos arrived first, drenched in a red chile arbol that left the whole thing tinted red, but lacking any semblance of its chile-laced heat. Instead, the tender meat inside provided all of the needed flavor, with plenty of juice and stewed spices to go along with a handful of crisp white onions. The tortillas, which had softened considerably from their splash with the salsa, had been warmly griddled and laced with tasty, fried edges with every bite. For basic barbacoa tacos, the high execution is readily apparent.
Next in line on the menu board are the tacos dorados de papa, or fried potato tacos. Rather than drenching them in a thin salsa and lots of guacamole, you can actually order these with a heap of carnitas right on top. Soft and salty, you won't find much crispy pork to speak of. Instead, the whole thing is swamped up with a thin tomato-based salsa, some shaves of cabbage and slices of raw white onion. The idea is to grab a little bit of all the ingredients in every bite, for a starchy, meaty, crispy, slightly spicy forkful. Squeeze a wedge of lime on top for a sour kick.
In similar fashion, the carnitas tostadas arrive as a plate of ingredients meant to be mixed and inhaled all at once. Think of it as a sort of pork ceviche, with bites of off-cut swine swimming in a thin tomato salsa and shredded slaw. Delicate eaters may want to avoid the tostadas, as you're not going to be getting slices of pork belly or loin on this plate. Instead, it's all ears, skin and pig's feet. The cuerito, a slippery and gelatinous pig skin that tastes clean despite its abundance of fat, is by far your best bet. Others may enjoy picking at the tasty bites to be had around the knuckles of a pig's hoof.
Instead, go for what you knew was right all along: the tortas ahogadas. Thickly stacked piles of carnitas are squished between toasted bollilo bread slices that offer a fine external crunch, like a Latin American version of the baguette. When these simple sandwiches are left to float in a lip-smackingly hot chile arbol, the result is a pure Guadalajaran delicacy. The tortas ahogadas are soft on the inside, with thick porcine bites to work through, then are crusty along the exterior, but soaked and softened in a bright red simple salsa that will leave you begging for a cup of horchata.
As a pure interpretation of Guadalajaran street food, including the soaked pork tortas that the region is known for, Tortas Ahogadas La Ramadita is a surefire winner. It even has the look of a champion, slung low along the side of major San Fernando Valley thoroughfare, but painted in those regal Chivas colors for all to admire from the road. Without the bright paint job, you might never even know Tortas Ahogadas was there at all.
Tortas Ahogadas La Ramadita
5946 Vineland Ave., North Hollywood, CA 91601 (map)