The taco and the torta are the twin pillars of Mexican street food, but where the taco is small and sexy and has long since seduced all of America in its many forms, the torta (with its many Mexican sandwich siblings) is just teetering on the brink of international stardom. The small size of a taco makes it an easy step into new flavors, but a sandwich is a meal, it's a commitment to the milanesa, the carnitas, or the pierna (pork leg) inside. But it's a commitment spread with butter and refried beans, topped with creamy avocado or delightfully addictive spicy peppers, and piled with any of an endless array of flavorful meats and cheeses. The Mexican sandwich takes the same taco flavors and turns them up to eleven, offering a world of fluffy buns and spicy meats that no food lover should leave uneaten.
Back in 2005, Rick Bayless was still introducing Mexican "submarines" with extensive explanation in his book Mexican Everyday. Four years later, he'd open his own torta shop, called Xoco, and bring tortas to a much wider crowd. By 2012, Roberto Santibañez didn't even feel the need to explain what a torta is in the introduction to his book Tacos, Tortas, and Tamales. In fact, when he begins to discuss them, he gets right into the nitty gritty, arguing that translating the word torta to "sandwich" is like describing a Rembrandt masterpiece as a portrait—accurate, but not doing justice.
Like the bánh mì (the Vietnamese sandwich that's selling books and driving fast food innovation), tortas are a remnant of French colonialism. (Yes, the French were in Mexico, as anyone who has toasted to the Pueblan victory over the French on the fifth of May should be well aware.) Instead of inheriting the crisp, crackling baguettes of Paris, though, in the years since the 1862 defeat of the French, Mexican sandwiches adapted to soft rolls called bolillos, and then on to the three-humped telera and flat pambazo. Like the supple tortillas you find in tacos, Mexican breads provide a soft, subtle flavor to contain the brilliantly-flavored meats that are the calling-card of the cuisine.
"Tacos are dinner food," Lesley Tellez says. Tortas, on the other hand, are a lunch food, made to eat on the go (you'll rarely see seats at a torta stand, she points out), hard to find before noon, and often shutting down before sunset. Tellez, who runs Eat Mexico, a street food tour company in Mexico City, and has written a forthcoming book on Mexican food, says that a torta is essentially a "big, fat, messy Mexican sandwich." It boasts an array of salty, sour, spicy, and even sweet flavors. "Con todo," (with everything) is the way to order a torta, says Tellez, meaning that the diner would like whatever toppings (lettuce, tomatoes, onions, spicy pickled peppers) are available. Santibañez concurs, offering his theory that "the torta took all the foods people already loved and made them portable."
The Mexican palate, Tellez explains, finds the stuff of American sandwiches (turkey, tomato, and cheese, for example) too boring. "[Mexicans] want a different experience, more intense, more in your face," she says, though she follows up by pointing out that now Mexican street food is growing in popularity in the US. As people want to learn more about other cultures, Tellez says, eating the big, layered, complex sandwiches are an affordable way to explore.
Until the 1960s, the cold torta was the only kind of torta in Mexico. Cold tortas are simple; all about showing off the ingredients—ham, cheese, mortadella, or even salt cod—rather than boasting about just how many they have. In his Gran Libro de Tortas, Roberto Arturo Ayala T. (not a big believer in the hot torta) says "really, all tortas should be cold, made from that day's bread." The basic torta is made on a telera roll: a soft white roll, usually seven to nine inches long, recognizable for its three humps. The roll is split open, with the much of the bread pulled from the inside of the top, allowing more room for the filling to take over as the prominent flavor. Refried beans are spread inside the top, while the chosen filling is stacked with lettuce, tomato, and pickled jalapeños. Tellez mentions that those pickled jalapeños, present on most tortas in Mexico, are one of the foods she most misses from Mexico, and wishes she could find in New York (where she has yet to find a torta up to her standards.)
The palm-sized torta at La Texoacana offers a glimpse at the tiny, traditional, cold tortas of yore. By the time it was written up in the New York Times in 2007, the tiny Mexico City storefront was already more than seven decades old. The fillings haven't got caught up in the modern (hot dog) or Western (mayonnaise) trends that other tortas have. Salt cod is popular, along with sardine in tomato sauce, and mortadella. More of a snack than a meal (or three) that are the heaping "tortas gigantes" plying the street carts, the telera here is barely more than five inches long, spread with avocado and garnished with chipotle peppers.
Quesillo (Oaxacan cheese), American cheese, and manchego all melt beautifully, while Mexican meats (carnitas, chorizo, or pierna, made from pork shank,) crisp up on the flat top. Stuffed into the soft telera, insides buttered, spiked with pickled jalapeños, tempered with refried beans, and garnished with a few fresh vegetables, the hot torta stands with the other kings and queens of the sandwich world: the po'boy, the cheesesteak, the hoagie, and the Uruguayan Chivito.
According to El Gran Libro de Tortas, the warm version of the torta came about when a gay couple, who had been asked to leave a restaurant, heated up the previous day's cold bread for their meal, calling it "tortas al fuego." Today, a cart serving this type of torta seems to grace nearly every street corner in Mexico City (many painted with just those words "tortas al fuego"), and it is the sandwich that has most easily made the leap into everyday American life.
Like the cold torta, it is generally made on a telera, the three-humped white bread, or on a bolillo, a similar roll with just a single cut in the top, and with rounded edges. Post-split, the inside is spread with lard or butter, then griddled, prior to adding the beans. Setting it apart from many hot sandwiches, the torta doesn't see heat as a whole, but rather the bread, cheese, and meat are each griddled separately, then stacked into the sandwich.
As with any of the great sandwiches of the world, the many moving parts of a hot torta can be subbed in or out, offering customizable sandwiches and a lexicon of different combinations. As Santibañez says in Tacos, Tortas, and Tamales "nearly anything can become a torta."
In the torta Cubana, nearly everything does become a torta. Mexico City is known for kitchen-sink style sandwiches: it's the big city, and the sandwiches are sized to match (look for "tortas gigantes," or "giant tortas" signs around town). While the torta Cubana might share a name (in translation) with the Cuban sandwich, it shares very little with the mild-mannered, politely-sized ham and cheese sandwich. Brigham Barnes eloquently described the torta Cubana in Lucky Peach as "a savagely beautiful meat beast that the less artful or non-smitten might call a Mexican garbage plate on bread." An average torta cubana might include a piece of milanesa (breaded meat), a slice of pierna (cooked pork leg—though the word is also at times used to mean pulled-pork leg meat), a split-down-the-center hot dog, ham, quesillo, and American cheese. Four meats and two cheeses—that's just the tip of the torta Cubana iceberg, where chorizo and eggs could embrace on a bed of head cheese and nobody would give them a second glance. What is exactly in the sandwich depends on the particular stand, but like the old graveyard or 'suicide' soda drinks, it basically involves a little bit of every single topping that the torta stand has on hand.
Another of Mexico City's grandly indulgent style of sandwiches is the pepito. It forgoes the amalgam of meat products that make up the Cubana in favor of one great meat: sliced, grilled steak, marinated in Maggi sauce or Worcestershire. Usually made with skirt steak, its flat surface on the griddle achieves the maximum amount of charred meat flavor, which makes the perfect foil for the creamy avocado that serves as its partner-in-crime inside the bolillo roll, spread with beans and crema—or possibly mayonnaise. It is a sandwich that has fully embraced some of the newer, Western elements tortas have absorbed: As a "seasoned pepito eater," Santibañez suggests in his recipe that it is best served with mayo and even a little mustard.
In his Gran Libro de Tortas, Roberto Arturo Ayala T. lists the five components of a great sandwich: bread, spread, filling, garnish, and ingenuity, but also points out that a great sandwich is not necessarily a giant sandwich, and that tortas can be eminently simple. In the Yucatán, specifically in the town of Merida, tortas are made of nothing more than a bolillo (a plain, slightly crustier roll with just a single rib down the center, as opposed to the three humps of a telera), and cochinita pibil, the slow-roasted pork dish typical of the area, made with achiote paste and sour orange juice. The rich, meaty juice from the pork drips into the bread (hence the need for a bit more crust) and acts as the spread. A little acidic, spicy salsa or a few pickled purple onions provide contrast, but this sandwich is truly just two parts: meat and bread. Cohinita pibil is so full of natural talent that what it needs more than anything is for all its teammates to get out of the way so it can score all the touchdowns.
Any dish that comes with plastic gloves should give you a hint that what's coming is good. The torta ahogada—drowned torta—is a sandwich that you need protection from: the sauce poured over the sandwich is ready to set your lips and mouth on fire. A native of Guadalajara, and Jalisco state in general, the torta itself needs protection from the tomato and spicy pepper sauces that try to soak it through. For that, it is traditionally made on a birote salado, which is a salted crusty roll, more like a baguette than a telera. The crispiness of the outside holds the bread together, cuddling the carnitas (shredded pork) within. The sauce soaks through, though, getting its spicy hands on the flavorful meat, tying the sandwich up into a rather messy package of meat, bread, and sauce all melding together.
"The torta ahogada should be more popular," says Tellez, touting the sandwich's reputation as a hangover cure. "Maybe people are put off by the fact that it's a sandwich drenched in insanely hot salsa, but it works." For those looking to tame the heat on the sandwich, it can usually be ordered with a higher ratio (media will get you half) of tomato sauce to spicy pepper sauce.
The pambazo takes the torta ahogada one step further, soaking the bread (which again shares a name with the sandwich) in a chili sauce, then frying it. Inside, fried potatoes and chorizo join refried beans, meat (ham or shredded beef are both common), cheese, and lettuce. It is not a lightweight sandwich.
The bread (and sandwich) take their name from the words pan basso, or low-class bread. It is a type of roll made from less good wheat, with more lard or butter than most, making it soft and all the better for a dip in a guajillo chili sauce before meeting the hot oil. The sauce imparts a bright-red glow to the bread, the frying spots it with dark, crisp bits to contrast the soft beans within. It's a jumbled sandwich inside, with potato (diced and sautéed with the chorizo) jockeying for space between the meat and the bread with shredded lettuce and crumbles of soft white queso fresco. It's only the thin drizzle of crema that pulls the whole mess together—this needs to be eaten quickly before it all falls apart.
The cemita, the specialty of the sandwich-centric town of Puebla, is as complicated as the torta Cubana, but where the Cubana is messy and varied, the cemita is orderly and neat, its many layers working together for the best taste. The cilantro-like herb papalo is the pop in a cemita, the flavor that makes you sit up and take notice, to realize this is no ordinary sandwich. Its minty flavor cuts through the layers of meat (often beef milanesa and ham), avocado, pickled chipotle peppers, onion, and quesillo. The quesillo, the stringy cheese that is so wonderfully melted on a torta, is not griddled in the cemita, but instead pulled, giving those waiting in line for a cemita the opportunity to watch the mesmerizing act of many people whose sole job it is to shred mounds and mounds of cheese for sandwiches.
The eggy bun, also called a cemita, distinguishes the sandwich: crunchy and golden brown on the outside (with a smattering of sesame seeds), soft, a little dry, and just barely sweet on the inside. "Nobody has cracked the cemita bread code in the US, definitely not in New York," says Tellez of trying to find the right roll for this sandwich—which she calls one of her top three things to eat in Mexico. Instead, she suggests a trip to Cemitas Beto in the Mercado La Acocota in Puebla.
While cemitas might be the pride and joy of Puebla and the star of the sandwich show, the pelona is the understudy just waiting for its moment in the limelight. What the cemita has in size (which is a lot—twice as much as a pelona) the pelona makes up for with its unique, uncomplicated combination of shredded beef and crispy bread.
The name means "baldy" and the bare top of the bread does shine proudly, like a tall bald man over a mess of shredded beef, lettuce, and chopped avocado, though the name actually comes from the lack of sesame seeds, which are found on its crosstown rival, the cemita. The bread takes a dip in hot oil, rendering the outside as ready to shatter as a first-generation smartphone screen. When it does, though, the thick layer of crema catches every last crumb of fried bread, taking it down as it drips through the tangle of shredded beef. The small size of the sandwich helps to keep everything together as it is quickly demolished—any larger and the fried bun might fall apart before the end of the sandwich.
Another diminutive Poblano specialty, chanclas come in pairs, like the sandals for which they are named. Sure enough, two small chancla breads (similar to teleras, but without any humps) set afloat in a sea of red chili sauce do end up looking a bit like sandals. Inside each roll are shredded meat, avocados, and onions. Smaller than the torta ahogada, of which the chili-drenched sandwiches are reminiscent, they are also a little quicker to fall apart, because they are on a soft white bread. They come with a cooling drizzle of crema on top, which eases the pain of the of the vivid red chili sauce in which they are drenched. If there were an award for messiest street food, the chancla would put up a good fight, but there's spicy, meaty reward for digging into the puddle of nearly neon-red sauce to fish out one of these "sandals" of bread and meat.
Guajolota (Torta de Tamal)
There's little that makes for a better street food than hot carb-on-carb action, and the tamal-stuffed bolillo known as a guajolota drives yakisoba pan, the Mission burrito, and apple pie made of Ritz crackers to the back of the starch-overload line.
There's hardly a more welcome sight on a morning street corner than the woman standing behind a giant metal steam pot with a bag of bolillo rolls next to her. The idea is to turn the tamal into a handheld food, into the on-the-go specialty that tortas symbolize. Putting the hot tamal into a room temperature bun makes it grippable. But the fact is, these are not small or easy to take with you—especially not while sipping atole, the hot corn drink that is traditionally taken with tamales (in or out of torta form). There's very little to the standard Mexico City version of the sandwich: simply a tamal shoved into a roll, the fillings of the tamal giving the only break from the softness of both the white bread and the cornmeal of the tamal. Yet, it is the double-doughiness that offers comfort, with the torta catching any crumbles of tamal cascading away. Like tamales and atole on their own, the guajolota is a morning food, presumably to allow you an entire day in which to try to nap off your carb coma.
With the growth of tortas to (literal) new heights, something had to take over the reins as official snack sandwich, and marinas have seized the opportunity. The small size keeps these from getting too complicated, so the fillings tend to have the spread and filling mixed together, such as 'Russian Salad' (a chicken salad with mayonnaise), chicken in mole sauce, mushrooms in chipotle, or tuna salad. The two-bite sandwiches are made using hojaldras, which are a small, shiny rolls, rich with eggs and were traditionally made for the holidays. Santibañez's recipe suggests challah or brioche rolls make a good substitution. Due to their size and easy assembly, these are far more common to serve when entertaining at home than to find in a restaurant, since the buns are simply split and filled with chicken in mole sauce or similar.
How can you improve upon the glory that is crunchy, sticky, rich pork rinds? By putting them inside a sandwich, obviously. In this specialty of León, in the state of Guanjuato, crushed up chicharrones are the meat inside a bolillo roll, softened with sliced avocado. Like the guajalota, it's nonsensically named for a bird. The name could, perhaps, be explained by the fact that the spicy pico de gallo within shares the bright red shade of the macaw's plumage, but writer Joe DiStefano of Chopsticks and Marrow tells us it's because "it's so spicy you'll squawk like that tropical bird when you eat it." The spice of the pico de gallo is only as sharp as the crunch of the pork rind, both of which are ameliorated by the avocado and mild bolillo roll.